Compassion is a beautiful thing. What is compassion? It is a four parted phenomenon of witnessing, acknowledging, and feeling of others’ pain and responding with compassionate actions that alleviate the pain. This is a topic close to my heart and I have written about it.
Compassion is hard. It requires moral imagination to feel other’s pain, especially those of strangers. Compassion is also easy. Because when you feel the pain, you act in a way to reduce someone else’s pain thereby reducing your own agony and discomfort. In turn it makes you also feel better about yourself. Compassion being a response to pain has a strong affective component and therefore may be transient and not enduring. For example, you may feel moved to contribute to the latest earthquake relief after watching the TV coverage, but you may move on to other parts of your life without getting embroiled in it.
Compared to compassion, it seems to be much harder to witness celebrate other’s flourishing. Why is it so hard to celebrate others’ victories, achievements, and joy? Your friend may have written a book that topped the New York Times Best seller list. How do you react to it? Is it easy for you to react with positivity and appreciation? You cousin may have gotten married to the hottie who is also brilliant and kind. How do you react to it? Especially if your husband is an alcoholic slob? What about your neighbor that hit it rich and moved to the beautiful house with the million dollar view? How do you react to it? In these cases, there is no pain to respond. Witnessing and sharing in other people’s joy requires you to move your mental model to one of transcendence in which you feel you and the other are not separate. It requires to capacity for joy and not just pain. What do you need to move your mental model?
1. Are you objectively self-aware? What does that even mean? This is a human dilemma in which you are both the subject and the object. This demands deep and critical reflection. It is a tightrope dance because while you want to be self aware, you don’t want to be self conscious, especially of the public variety. Public self consciousness is not beneficial because one is then obsessed with how others perceive and/or judge them. Private self consciousness on the other hand is paying attention to your own feelings, thoughts, and emotions. But taken too far, it too becomes an obsession. Meditative and mindfulness practices such as Transcendental Meditation, Vipassana Meditation are examples of practice that can help you develop the capacity for objective self-awareness. So are other practices such as yoga in its traditional form, art and other aesthetic pursuits which put you in flow, when coupled with reflective practice.
2. Do you possess emotionality, i.e. the tendency to experience a variety of emotions? Positive Psychology brought our attention to positive emotions and human flourishing. Which is a very good thing. To move from a pathology centered approach to flourishing approach is a positive evolutionary step! But I have always been concerned that the positive psychology movement may inadvertently silence negative emotions, thus invalidating emotions that exist and may even be warranted. For example, this school of thought terms, gratitude, forgiveness, compassion and empathy, and humility as the sacred emotions. What about moral outrage? May it not be considered sacred emotion? Most recent research alleviates this concern. A multi-school study offers evidence that emotional variety and diversity is essential for mental and physical well being. This makes more sense in the mindfulness framework too. Mindfulness is not about suppressing a certain set of emotions but it is about accepting and experiencing all of them. So if you can feel anger, joy, guilt, sadness, happiness, compassion and the whole gamut, more power to you! You will not only have less hospital visits, but you can also shift your mental models about how to relate to the world.
3. Just because you are able to experience different sets of emotions doesn’t mean you need to run and act on all of them at the moment you experience them. The third important question: do you have a set of highly developed emotional regulatory processes? Individual capacity to regulate one’s emotions is linked to morally relevant and social behavior. How do you regulate yourself better? Interestingly you need to go back to Items 1 and 2. Developing the capacity to experience and articulate a range of discrete emotions is essential for emotional self regulation. Which in turn can benefit from developing the capacity for objective self awareness.
To go back to our original question, if you feel pain at other people’s happiness, success or joy, embrace it in the moment. Ask yourself why you feel the pain and engage in self-compassion . Then you can regulate your negative reaction, feel a deep connection to the other person and express positive support and approbation and share in the joy. That way, you don’t have to fake it till make it. You can actually feel it. Faking it is rigorous emotional labor and very stressful. Much better to focus on shifting your mental model to truly connect and rejoice in others’ successes.