December 20, 2021




If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I am taking us through an exploration of barriers to compassion. In my last post, I looked at burnout, this time I consider a shame.

Shame may not seem like an obvious aspect of barriers to compassion. But I think it is an important entrenched obstacle, and is often disguised by other attitudes, like resentment or judgment, making it even more difficult to engage and tackle.

In my experience, people are often conflicted about acting compassionately. Compassionate action involves some sort of relationship with another being, whether human or animal, even if that relationship is abstract, as when donating time or money to a cause. But our relationships with others are rarely without some degree of internal complexity or ambivalence. When this complexity interferes with our better impulses, we can feel ashamed of ourselves, and perhaps, quite judgmental. When we feel that kind of psychic pain, we tend to withdraw from its source, in this case the person or being in need of care. We can adopt an attitude of resentment, or even cold detachment. And perhaps, privately, even more shame. And so it goes, shame feeding shame.

What do I mean by ambivalence complicating compassion? Many scenarios can pertain, but I’ll cite one many city dwellers can relate to. Consider the scenario of the homeless person on the sidewalk, sitting with a cardboard sign, some sort of cup or receptacle, perhaps even a dog lying nearby. It’s a hard sight, and one is confronted with it repeatedly. It is difficult to feel consistently open to compassion for people we see in that situation. It is so painful to imagine even what part of their day might feel like, much less endless days, with no respite in sight. So what often intervenes is a kind of judgmental rationale, “they must have made some pretty bad choices to end up there” or something of that nature. We walk by, pretending not to see. And we may feel a touch of shame. Best way to avoid that next time? Harden that judgmental suit of armor, and rush past. Compassion is left behind, and a bit of our sense of ourselves as a caring person, as well.

If we could recognize that our rushing past, our recoiling, is an understandable human reaction, one that is simply seeking to feel less pain, more happiness, we could be a bit gentler with ourselves. We might feel less shame. If we could look at the homeless person and feel clearly that they too, whatever their circumstances, fundamentally wish for happiness, we could feel a touch of recognition, and commonality. We might stoop to put a dollar in the cup and feel the warmth of a caring connection, however minor. And that feels good. That makes us happy. Win/Win.

We don’t have to love the whole person to be compassionate. We don’t have to even like them. We just have to reach out to the part of them that just like us, wishes for happiness, and from that, offer what we can, however small or large. We can act in small ways or large. We don’t have to save the world, or be a saint or martyr. We just have to recognize the fundamental truth of the sameness of self and other in the wish for happiness and act from that wish, for others AND ourselves. What do you think this world like if everyone did that?