How Do You Define Compassion?
When you think of the word compassion what is the first thing that pops into your mind? People may frame it as sympathy, pity, love or empathy. In my experience, if I were to be honest, I defined compassion as sympathy. It was natural for me to feel bad for people; which gave rise to me wanting to take care of people and help them. My perspective has changed over the years. When sympathy is shown to me, it doesn’t personally afford me much comfort but rather it keeps me in a mode of self-pity. I now define compassion more as empathy. When I can be empathic, I can be more connected because I feel with people rather than for people. Sympathy never truly allowed me to be connected; in fact it made me feel disconnected and better than.
Growing up in an alcoholic family, I wanted people to feel bad for me and show me attention because of my difficult circumstances. I thought that was how I was valued and it was the best way to get noticed. I learned to be filled up by others and living life from what others perception of me was.
After many decades, I found that to be empty and unfulfilling. I needed other people so much that I lost me. I became a chronic caretaker and never figured out how to take care of myself. My focus was primarily on others. The impact alcoholism had on me was that I felt alone, different from others, and on the outside.
I isolated from others and did not pursue connection with people. I had a ton of shame and did not want my middle school friends to see what my family life was like so I never invited friends over to my house. We were a single parent family due to the sudden death of my mother. We were different. As I look back over the course of life through middle school, high school and college and into my professional career, I did not have any continuity in my relationships. I kept to myself based primarily out of fear and insecurity.
Prior to finding my own path to recovery, I was tired and burned out. I had lost my true sense of self and was barely holding on. I was running a family member around to work and meetings because she didn’t have a means of transportation and had lost her license and I was the life -saver. I also had my alcoholic father living with me on a temporary basis and I was falling back into old patterns of behavior. I was exhausted and it brought me to a place where life became unmanageable.
It was not until I managed to find my way into recovery, that things started to change. I found people who could relate to me and my circumstances and a new world opened up to me. I found friends who were real and talked about real stuff. I found true and meaningful connection.
Connection and community are important to me. I have to continually find ways to make room for them. We live in a fast paced world and we struggle to fit everything in. The demands of work just seem to be more and more, we have longer commutes, the needs of kids and aging parents have increased, we are involved in parenting groups, play groups, self-help groups and the list goes on.
So how do I balance life? Making time for friends and family has become more important to me in recovery. I had always prided myself of being independent and not needing others. That wasn’t really my truth; it’s just how I survived.
I love having coffee with friends, going for walks, sitting with my Dad and just letting the conversation flow in a natural direction. I love relaxing at home, baking and watching my favorite shows with my wife.
The Seeds of Self-Compassion
If I know one thing it is that you can give what you don’t have. I cannot be a giver of compassion to others if I don’t have any for myself.
Self -compassion was the first step for me. I embarked on a journey of self- appraisal and I realized some truths about how I was conditioned around certain issues. I became willing to put old ideas to the side. By getting quiet, going inward, contemplating, assessing and praying I began to find clarity. In doing this, I took responsibility for my behavior. I did hurt people along the path and I had the opportunity to make corrections. My family was damaged due to the sudden death of my mother, the death of my brother, and my Dad’s alcoholism. We didn’t know how to be vulnerable with one another and share our hearts. Our hearts were broken and hurt people – hurt people.
Brene Brown says it perfectly “ You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness”. I hustled for my worthiness for decades and I came up empty.
Leaning into Empathy
It takes courage to own your story and to begin a new chapter. I did not want to live in regret, resentment or anger any longer. I was tired. Trials and struggles make us relatable and human. Life can be hard, but I can make it a lot harder by trying to go it alone.
When I open my eyes and my heart to other people’s pain, compassion becomes natural. Listening to people’s hearts through their stories soften me. I get to just be and let them be. I believe I am called to meet people where they are at and not have expectations of where I want them to be. There is no longer a need to control others.
Reverend Greg Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and it is the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. He teaches about community, kinship and erasing dividing lines. To quote Reverend Boyle from his book Tattoos on the Heart “Close both eyes; see with the other one. Then, we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgments, our ceaseless withholding and our constant exclusions. Our sphere widens and we find ourselves, quite expectantly, in a new expansive location, in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love”
Being in recovery and leading with empathy with my family and friends has been a gift that has changed my life in every respect and for that I am grateful. Compassion is sympathy