Self and Others. Balancing Empathy and Self-Compassion
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 2015 (edited November 11, 2021)
We blame because it's easy, relieving guilt; but we should look a little further. Often our selfish actions conflict with our self image as a kind person.
The likable words “Do what is best for you,” shine on our souls, giving an internal smile. From the bully pulpit, a blaring reminder from the professional motivator directs, “take personal responsibility.” Fired up with enthusiasm, we turn the page in our latest self-help manual and read, “Be kind, compassionate and considerate.” Advice, advice, advice. Each rule presented as immutable laws—follow or be damned. Then enters complexity; what happens when doing the best for me harms another? Is this being considerate? (The not so) immutable laws occasionally contradict. We must make trade-offs.
We may slip into a trap, harming our growth, and carelessly hurting others. We give subjective interpretations of behaviors, and then treat those interpretations as facts. In psychology this is called the psychologist's fallacy. Subjective interpretations are so malleable they can easily be misused, fused with bias and self interest.
We abhor benefiting at costs to others—at least openly. The choice grates positive held self-images, suggesting selfishness. Instead of indulging our wants while knowingly injuring another, we indulge our wants and justify the harm by slapping a subjective label on the situation. We act selfishly, justify the behavior, and then comfortably enjoy our reward. “I deserve this,” we soothe; or, “they had it coming,” we condemn.
Phycologist's Fallacy is when an external observer assumes that their subjective interpretation is reality.
Not all are blatantly selfish, sacrificing others on their climb to success. We may succumb to a different behavior niche, skirting around painful trade-offs. Some abandon the self—sacrificing dreams—in hopes of acceptance. Whatever the path, connections involve trade-offs, with differing costs and benefits; ignoring costs and highlighting benefits relieves anxiety but also desensitizes choices from the real impacts.
"Instead of indulging our wants while knowingly injuring another, we indulge our wants and justify the harm."
Some Self Interest is Necessary
Some self-interest is essential; living beings must attend to their well-being—or perish. But some personal gain is shortsighted, missing on benefits of connectedness. Sacrifice of self in the present often intertwines with a wider vision. Thomas Merton aptly stated, “no man is an island.” Connections offer blessings that isolation doesn’t; when what’s best for me damages important connections, I’m not necessarily doing what’s best for me.
Connections are essential for surviving and surviving well. Self-interested behaviors include skilled relating—not simply to get our way. The cost of immediate reward that harms a relationship impacts future resources from that relationship, hurting ourselves and others. We must employ balance.
Exposing Subjective Justifications
Like a neglected garage, cluttered with decades of junk, order requires close examination of individual items, making tough trade-offs. Some stuff must go. Too much clutter and the items become un-usable, never available when needed. Self-inventory requires difficult decisions, clearing the junk of misdirected impulses, clear vision of needs, and a reasonable picture of the future.
Our subjective excuses and labels intrude on everything. Mixed in with the clutter of our mind. We just need to slowly unpack the mind, slow down, and notice the errors.
Many wants are incompatible. Drinking every night with friends interferes with intimate relationships; the constant berating of a supervisor limits opportunities; indiscriminate spending postpones retirement. Not all behaviors are wrong, they just conflict with other desires. We must make trade-offs. Through mindful examination we can see where we are justifying with a subjective interpretation.
Balancing Self Needs with Care for Others
When balancing between self and others, we must direct compassion towards self and others—a balance of benefits and costs to everyone. We recognize our own needs and carefully work to fulfill; but not leaving a path of carnage, littered with the injured bodies. Oblivious to the impacts we have on others, we live a narrow existence.
Without empathy for others’ experiences, we don’t love. Our relationships are manipulative, squeezing the life out of partners, family and friends. Eventually, the relationships exhaust and must be abandoned for new people ignorantly blind to the emotional toll about to befall them.
Finding balance is difficult. To the narcissist, other’s expressions of self-interest triggers annoyance or outrage. The narcissist completely out of balance doesn’t recognize lopsided self-focus; other emotions don’t exist outside of their bodies. “I feel therefore the universe is.”
The narcissist’s emotions sharply stab when confronted with someone whose goals conflict with theirs. To the narcissist, the other is wrong. The other person’s experience—needs and wants—doesn’t exist.
In contrast, the drive for acceptance is not always directed by compassion. Others’ accepting gestures is paramount. Constantly starved for acceptance invites selfish action, the need for approval motivates behavior. When acceptance is not given, the hungry react; their gifts are coupled with resentment. Occasionally, the bitterness bubbles over, “I give and give but you don’t care.” With a desperate cry, one might lament, “It doesn’t pay to be kind,” and “I will never help anyone again.”
Both expressions warn of giving entangled with messy expectations. The need for acceptance unable to fill the holes of insecurity, disrupt relationship development. Thoughtful giving fails to relieve the aching heart suffering from childhood wounds, desperately seeking fulfillment from the outside world.
We All Have Some Undesirable Traits
Some characteristics of the insecure and the narcissist live in our own hearts, spurring emotions, and motivating thoughts. To grow, we must examine these feelings a little closer. Without careful inspection, we miss the deficiencies and fail to make adjustments.
When inclined to blame others, we should stop and inspect our own hearts a little deeper. We are not an island. Certain behaviors feel good and other behaviors don’t. But when we blame, we fail to acknowledge our involvement—which most of the time, with deeper inspection, can be uncovered and constructive changes made.
When you blame, acknowledge it, raise a flag, signaling a need for deeper inspection. Seldom is a single act the sole cause of adversity. Usually a long causal string of behaviors interacts with unknown forces to contribute to the final event. The final triggering act that breaks our patience is often a response to one of our actions, and that action often was responding to theirs. Each action based on past programming and interpretations of all the parties involved, tainting views, and biasing judgments.
Our beliefs, expectations and opinions about the people involved weave together creating a messy knot not easily unraveled. Instead of facing the confusion of complexity, the unknowns of causes, we jump to a self-protecting explanation, “you hurt me because you are mean.” These explanations don’t solve the deeper problems—pulling a single string that tightens the knot.
Escape from habits, deeply ingrained, only is available to those invested in growth; those willing to confront long-standing reactions through painful discovery. These skills belong to those willing to engage in a lifetime of work. Knowing ourselves, without ignoring others is a process of incremental enlightenments through persistent and directed attention. Only when we see ourselves in relationships to others can we begin to unclutter the messy garages of our souls.
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