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Empathy and Compassion - Essential for Loving Relationships

By Dr. Margaret Paul
December 31, 2006

While some people have maintained their ability to feel empathy and compassion, others shut it down in childhood due to many different experiences.

Loving relationshipEmpathy is the ability to feel what another is feeling. Compassion is deeply caring about one's own and others' pain.

Most people are born with both empathy and compassion as part of their essential selves. However, when children don't receive empathy and compassion from their parents or other caregivers, they may shut it down. Other children may shut it down when one of their parents has deep empathy and compassion for others but not for themselves and ends up being walked on or abused because of it. The child doesn't want to be vulnerable and walked on like the empathic parent, so may decide that it is safer to shut down the empathy and compassion.

Once people shut down their empathy and compassion, they can do great harm to others by being emotionally disrespectful, abusive or physically violent. It is only when we feel into others feelings that we then care about the effects of our behavior on them. It is through our empathy that we experience our oneness with others and therefore cannot do them harm. When we are shut off from feeling into others, we may stop caring about them.

Some people have empathy and compassion when they are in an open state, but shut it down completely when they are in their wounded selves. When this is the case, they too can do great harm to others, because there is no loving adult to set limits on acting out behavior or to care about others. Other people seem able to stay open to their empathy and compassion, even when feeling angry or upset. Some part of their loving adult stays conscious even when they are being triggered into their woundedness.


Relationship Problems Result From A Lack of Compassion

When both partners tend to shut down their compassion in conflict, then their conflicts rarely reach satisfying resolution. Difficulties also come up in relationships when one person maintains more empathy and compassion than the other, especially during conflict. If one person is able to maintain his or her compassion for the partner even when angry or upset, but the other person shuts down his or her empathy and compassion when angry, this creates an imbalance in the relationship. The more compassionate person may end up feeling abused by the interaction, and may also be the one who usually opens and takes responsibility for patching things up.

Problems also arise when one partner, due to his or her level of empathy and compassion, cares deeply about the other person's happiness and freedom, but the other partner, due to shutting down their empathy and compassion, does not support the other's happiness and freedom.

It is only when individuals are able to stay open to empathy and compassion, for themselves and others, even when angry or upset, that they are reliable in their caring. Because caring disappears when there is no empathy and compassion, the partner on the other end of this may feel as if they are walking on eggshells. They never know when the caring will be gone.


A Very Lonely Experience

Most of us feel very lonely when a loved one behaves in an uncaring way through name-calling, threatening, lying, slamming doors, discounting, saying mean things, being physically violent and so on. It's the loneliest feeling in the world when someone who says they love you to treats you in disrespectful and abusive ways.

Those people who have maintained a deep level of compassion and empathy for others need to respect themselves enough to bring that empathy and compassion inside to their own inner child. They need to make sure that their empathy and compassion for others does not mean that they allow themselves to be abused or disrespected.


If You Have Shut Down Your Empathy and Compassion...

Those people who have shut down their empathy and compassion can begin to open to it again by opening to compassion for their own inner child. It is unlikely that, if you shut down your compassion when you were a small child, you will be able to feel deep empathy and compassion for others until you feel it for yourself. People who didn't shut it down as children can feel it for others without feeling it for themselves, which is what often leads to caretaking. They give their caring to others but not to themselves. Caretakers often partner with takers, who have shut down their compassion for others and just want to get it from the caretaker. The caretaker ends up feeling very lonely because he or she is caring about others but no one, including themselves, is caring about them.

Relationships achieve growth and balance when both partners are intent on developing empathy and compassion for themselves and for each other. Without empathy and compassion, there is no true intent to learn, because it is only the loving adult that is capable of maintaining empathy and compassion for both oneself and others.

Join Dr. Margaret Paul for her 30-Day at-home Relationships Course: "Loving Relationships: A 30-Day Experience with Dr. Margaret Paul - For people who are partnered and people who want to be partnered."

Join IBVillage to connect with others and receive compassionate help and support for learning to love yourself.

Photo by David Marcu


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