Because there is so much discussion lately about pity, empathy and compassion in the wake of a relationship with a sociopath, I am writing this article to discuss compassion as it fits into the recovery process.
Before I begin, I would like to humbly remind my readers that recovery, by its nature, is a progression through different stages of emotional learning. If the trauma is major, these emotional states will be intense. And they will color our “sight” or view of the world and ourselves. I’m pointing this out as a warning that, unless you are in late-stage recovery, the material in this article may be irritating and you may find me a holier-than-thou pain in the butt.
If the farthest you have gone in trauma processing is denial, bargaining, anger, or grief and letting go, the related emotions will – and should – dominate your view of things until you learn the lessons of that stage and gaduate to the next one. Each graduation changes your world, and it also alters your perspective on how you felt before. For example, anger looks back at denial as a less empowered, less insightful phase. And denial veiws anger as anger as socially unacceptable or scary. This is just the natural progression of maturing consciousness. We look back from a larger perspesctive. We tend to block or demonize information from levels that are too far beyond where we are now.
So if this article doesn’t make sense to you, or it seems “nice but improbable,” or you find it irritating or nutty, it means it’s not useful to your current learning stage. Typically we can see into the next level of healing, even if we’re not fully there. Beyond that, it’s hard for us to intuitively grasp how it’s going to be.
As we observe on LoveFraud, there is a lot of learning in recovery. This article is about the end of the process. It’s an end so complete that, every “next time” we face a trauma, we know how the processing will end. It changes forever the way we approach healing and the speed at which we do it.
Most of us grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition where compassion is understood as a “social” feeling. That is, the feeling is about “we,” not just “I.” It’s associated with ideas about welfare as a community goal, not just an individual one. So we tend to define compassion as concern about someone else’s difficulty plus some level of obligation to help.
This definition of compassion is why the sociopath’s pity ploy is so challenging for us. It’s also why there may be resistance to my statements that I feel compassion for my ex, because I am aware of the painful identity damage he lives with. The assumption, I believe, is that it’s dangerous to feel compassion for an anti-social person, because that feeling comes with implied obligation to help. So it may seem inexplicable that I am aware of his pain, but feel no responsibility for alleviating it.
The concept of compassion that I am presenting to you today is somewhat different. It is more like a Buddhist or Eastern idea of compassion. This compassion is simply a state (of mind), not a process of identifying need and acting on it. This state of compassion may inform our actions — quite literally inform, by providing information — but the actions themselves are driven by other commitments or goals.
That’s all very abstract. Why does it matter?
Here’s why. The state of compassion — which is open-hearted willingness to understand other people’s states and situations and to feel whatever feelings that produces — puts us into full alignment with “what is.” It’s a vibrant awareness that keeps us gathering information, learning, and accepting reality without judgment.
It’s not that we don’t make judgments on other levels of consciousness. In a compassionate state, we may understand what’s driving a person who is dangerous to us. On another level, we may interpret this person as nothing but a threat and be preparing to defend ourselves or flee. But the compassionate level “sees” their state, our state, and many surrounding details. All that information moves “down” the processing ladder to refine what’s going on at the visceral self-defense level, the pleasure-pain level, our community-feelings level, and the cognitive level where we’re doing logical reasoning.
In other words, this compassionate level of awareness feeds all our processes by providing them with information that is detailed, perceptive and based on openness to active states and connections in our environment.
If this sounds like a hierarchy of consciousness, that is exactly what it is. There are lots of models for this hierarchy, which I’m not going to get into now. But I mentioned earlier that this is the end-state of recovery. That means recovery from a specific trauma. It doesn’t mean that we have this compassionate awareness in every area of our lives, but any specific healing process is over when we have processed through to compassion.
Our changing focus in healing
We’ve talked about denial, bargaining, anger, grief and letting go, and finally learning the lesson that changes our perspectives and/or life rules. This follows the Kubler-Ross model of grief processing. But Kubler-Ross was conceived as a model for people facing terminal illness. It described how people come to accept the ending of their lives. The model I’m working with goes farther, because it assumes that recovery is a doorway into a new chapter of life.
To see the whole picture of recovery, it helps to look at the progressive shifts in our focus. Up to anger, and including part of the angry phase, trauma processing is about maintaining personal control — the idea that this is something we can change or affect. First we try to control our reactions (denial), then we try to control how our behavior influenced the situation (bargaining), then we try to control the situation by force of will (anger). In anger, we grasp that the problem is external to us. To control the impact of such externalities in the future, we develop defensive skills and perceptions.
In the later stages of anger — and this is one of the things that moves us out of anger — we become aware that we’re dealing with something that was not in our control at all. While the skills-building makes us feel better about ourselves, we are still reacting to outside threats. This focus on the external continues through the grieving and letting go process.
Grieving what we cannot change leads, eventually, to letting go. We can’t fully let go in anger. Instead, we have to revisit the love or great value we felt toward what we lost. (This may be, and often is, something that we now recognize as an illusion.) Reawakening love, even to say goodbye, relaxes us back into ourselves, and opens us to the “lightbulb” learnings that typically release us from previous attachments or ideas of what we “must” have or do to be happy or whole.
In discovering what we don’t need, we gain freedom — more scope of action, feelings, and even intellect. But to explore the meaning of that freedom, we find ourselves “shaking down” our internal systems to see what makes sense now and what doesn’t. With freedom comes responsibilities, and we have more learning to do about how we will act, what we will expect, and how our feelings work in this new world.
As a simple example, a common learning from our experience with a sociopath is that, although we once needed other poeple to confirm our okay-ness, we realize we don’t need external validation to trust our values and perceptions. So flattery and promises, or outside opinons about our dreams or our guilt, may sometimes make us feel good (or bad) but they’re not ultimately as true for us as our own ideas and feelings. So how does that affect every other relationship in our lives? Working this through takes time and experimentation.
More to the point, perhaps, relationships with sociopaths teach us that we have the inborn entitlement and responsibility to take better care of ourselves. To take ourselves more seriously. To assign higher value to not just our survival, but what we do with our lives. And this imperative eventually brings us to a confrontation with how we really feel about ourselves.
Clearing the obstacles to self-love
This confrontation is usually shocking, something like traumatic. It’s mindbending to discover that we’ve been carrying around damage that has caused us to treat ourselves as badly as we accused the sociopath of doing. In fact, we could almost call the sociopath an agent of our own distrust and disrespect for ourselves.
But now we’re experienced enough to know that we didn’t do this to ourselves. We identify the externaliites and note how little control we had. Even working with memories, we can assert our right to our integrity, our right to thrive, and reject the old influences on our lives that once crippled us with feelings of unlovability, unworthiness, insecurity or despair.
This process of restoring self-love is the end stretch of trauma-processing. Our shakedown of our internal beliefs, rules and processes becomes more pervasive and profound. We are in touch with a need that we may have felt before, often masked in background anxiety or in addictive hungers, but we can’t mistake what it really is. We want to clear away anything that keeps us from being in touch with our true self — the bright, good, authentic, perceptive, learning, feeling center that has been the source of our best social impulses and also our self-healing impulses all our lives.
When we understand that this center exists and feel its nature, we come home to something that has always been there. It’s an experience that is impossible to describe, but it is the beginning of making sense of everything in our lives. In particular, we see how much of our life story has been about our attempts to heal traumas and get back to who we are. We become more conscious of how unhealed wounds color our perceptions. Though we cannot resolve everything at once, each resolved trauma illumates more of our authentic self, and helps us tell the differnce between what is authentic in us and what is unfinished trauma-processing. In this knowledge, we become more understanding and able to comfort ourselves, and more accepting of our normal human pains, fears, losses, as well as hungers, attractions, and goals.
We don’t have to be perfect to love ourselves. We can make peace with who we are. We can become more relaxed about new challenges, because we accept that, win or lose, we’re going to learn something great. We can acquire a sense of humor about where we’re still developing and are not so good at being all we could be.
We gain a new perspective, a kind of distance from ourselves that relieves us from fear and criticism, but encourages us in our progess as evolving people. That perspective also gradually aligns all the levels of consciousness behind a new “boss,” a new highest, deepest level that is more open and smart, while being more tolerant and supportive of our humanity. All of it — our need to physically survive, our genetic attachments to family, our drive to bond and reproduce, our dependence on community, our desire to make our lives meaningful, and all the other needs that come with being human. Compassion is like having an angel in the “top office,” influencing the way the whole company works.
But here’s the thing about compassion. As that open-hearted awareness anchors our internal workings, it also changes the way we see the world. Our perceptions are a reflection of our inner lives. We see from where we are in ourselves.
Compassion and Sociopathy
Compassion is a state of awareness. As I said earlier, this definition of compassion does not require us to act or react. It simply provides a new and more refined set of information to the rest of our systems. In the case of identifying a sociopath or finding reason to react, the identification is made with openness to understanding their state, including the wounded pain of their broken humanity. But compassion feels this pain without becoming involved in it. The information made available to our defensive systems may be simply that this person is wounded, extremely needy for personal support, but is apparently unable to heal or return support to other people. His needs are bottomless and not fixable by us.
Sad for him, and sad for us to know this about him. But it clarifies our response. Compassion tells us there is no potential for a mutual relationship and nothing to be gained by trying to help.
People who have read me here for a while, know that I am committed to changing social systems that, in my belief, create the circumstances in which children develop affective disorders – inadequate nurture, environmental violence and direct abuse. Sociopathy is an affective disorder, which may have genetic factors of predisposition, but is powerfully affected by environmental factors. I can’t change sociopaths, but I want to help reduce future suffering (and all the suffering it causes) at the source, where children are learning despair of trusting anything but themselves.
My way to change those systems is to help individuals stop the cycle of damage for themselves. I believe that we can heal our old damage, so we are no longer perpetuating or supporting the transmission of damage through generations, communities and other human systems. If we don’t get well, we are part of the problem. If we do get well, we become living solutions. Some of us will change the world just by being human beacons, people who inspire other people to learn to love themselves and discover with the powerful rationality that compassion brings. Some of us will use the information compassion brings us to actively work on human systems to create a better world where human potential can flourish.
So that is compassion in my view. I hope this clarifies what I mean when I talk about compassion, and why some of you may find my perspectives and my language so different. I hope that, in my voice, some of you hear the voice of your future.
Namaste. My angel high-fives your angel.
PS. This article is not about what’s wrong with you, being a more loving person so you’re treated better, or accepting or forgiving bad behavior. If it even seems like that, come back and take another look at it in a year or so. In the meantime, don’t worry, you’re doing fine and exactly where you’re supposed to be on the path.