My volunteer work with refugees since 2015 has triggered my interest in compassion and I want to share some of my personal insights here. Only true compassion is the basis for successful integration.
Refugees in Germany
In 2015 a huge wave of refugees from Syria flooded into Europe and in the course of one year Germany welcomed one million of them. This would not have been possible without millions of Germans pitching in.
In my neighbourhood in Hamburg one of more than thirty refugee camps was built. Since then I have been coordinating the German teachers and teaching myself. My colleagues and I have been working with many people from a variety of nations.
At the beginning there were a lot of problems and disappointments until we had established a routine and a fitting mindset for our work. (A mindset is a belief that orients the way we handle situations.)
What was the problem?
Our students didn´t come regularly and were always late. A lot of them did not seem eager to learn the language. They certainly did not behave like we expected: We had expectations that weren´t fulfilled and as a consequence we felt bad and our motivation dwindled.
We had to learn that it was not our responsibility that everybody attends our courses. If they did not want to involve themselves, so be it. We were there because it was important to us and we wanted to help them to learn the language.
It took some time until we had changed our mindset and learned to take things not personally. Because what do you do when you take something personally? You feel that you are being treated badly. You think the others are doing something wrong – you judge. I have discussed this subject with many volunteers from different organisations and apparently every volunteer has to learn this.
What is compassion?
For me compassion means understanding and accepting without judgement. In showing compassion we are expressing love and kindness for somebody else. When we show compassion we are on the same level as our counterpart. We acknowledge them as being important. With compassion we are creating an atmosphere of acceptance and are standing on the same level as the person we have contact with. We are not judging.
What is pity?
Pity is when we feel sorry for somebody. In feeling pity we are not treating the other person as an equal. We judge without being aware of it. I call this the pity-trap. Why?
When pitying somebody our attention is not with ourselves but with the other individual. This is what we are used to do: Focusing on another person and not on ourselves.
We thereby express implicitly that the other individual is not creating their reality well enough and that we know a better way. By this we generate judgement and by judging another individual we are looking down on them. We are treating them as somebody who is not being able to cope, for example.
Why is the difference between compassion and pity so important?
We express a significantly different energy when we choose either compassion or pity. Energy is always felt and reacted to whether we are aware of it or not.
People are able to accept the help you offer in a totally different way when we show genuine compassion. With compassion we show acceptance and understanding and transport a respectful energy. This is important for self-empowerment and being truly helpful.
People who are pitied don´t feel genuinely understood and supported. With pity we transport a feeling of smallness. People sense being looked down upon even when they do not consciously recognize this.
Showing compassion for refugees
In my volunteer work I learned to be more aware. I try now to be aware whenever I slip into the pity-trap, into judging. Believe me, I still do! When I notice that I am judging I am stopping this immediately. It is working quite well nowadays
I want to treat the refugees I meet as normally as possible. They had to flee under dreadful circumstances and they have often endured terrible horrors. Many are battling with depression. But they are normal human beings and have their faults like everybody else. They like to be treated normally. I see them as individuals and treat them with the same respect I treat everybody. It is so much fun connecting with them. During our lessons we laugh a lot. Sometimes we also cry together.
I want my work to be perceived as something that I give freely and as an equal. I want to help them to learn the language and thus help them with integration. As you might know German has a complex grammar and is not easy to learn.
We have been working at the refuge camp for two years now and the volunteers who are still active and motivated are the ones who have changed their mindset and express genuine compassion. I think you burn out easily when you have expectations that are constantly disappointed.
Compassion with people in the victim role
We all have had moments in which we have experienced ourselves as victims. In these moments we saw no choices. We felt and perceived ourselves as helpless and powerless. Some people keep creating uncomfortable situations for themselves. This is when genuine compassion can be very helpful.
How can you best express the compassion you are feeling?
The important thing is to acknowledge your counterpart. Just being there often does the trick. You could also listen as long as you feel up to it. You could reach out and touch them. Do what your impulses tell you is fine for both parties. Don´t give advice unless you are asked for it. When you are asked for advice try to be positive and supportive. When giving advice you could start your sentences with “I probably would” or “How do you feel about trying…” This shows respect for the other individual and leaves them choices.
Try to not have any expectations what the other person should or should not do. I know, this is easier said than done, because we want our friend or family member who is in a bad place to feel better fast. We are so used to creating expectations but, as I have established before, this is neither supportive nor self-empowering.
Compassion in my practise
I have been working as an energy healer for over ten years. Compassion is a basic tool for me. With compassion and empathy I create rapport and build a relationship with my clients. It helps that I love people, of course. I perceive every one of my clients as a unique wonderful being.
At the beginning of this career I was afraid to work with chronically ill clients. I felt pity and projected my own fears on them.
A friend of mine, who had terminal cancer helped me through this. She encouraged me to work with her and I could alleviate some of her symptoms. Working with her, I discovered, was just as wonderful and as fulfilling as working with my other clients.
Because of this helpful experience I don´t fall into the pity-trap any more when clients are having a particularly hard time. This way I can get on with truly supporting them.
Remember to take care of yourself first
When you want to help people and show compassion it is very important to respect your own boundaries. It does not matter whether you are doing this as a volunteer, as a healing professional or at home caring for a family member.
The moment you don´t honour your boundaries you will create problems. For example what happens if you listen longer to never changing lamentations than is good for you? Sooner or later you will be totally fed up and blame the other individual for your discomfort.
But your discomfort is not their fault. They are just expressing themselves and it is your duty to yourself to express yourself, too. When you start to feel uneasy, change the subject, go away or try to convey in a respectful manner that this is not going anywhere.
Remember you are just as important as the other person and the only one who can take care of yourself adequately is you! This way you honour yourself and you will be able to help the other individual effectively again another day.
Compassion is the key to integration
Something fundamentally changed in Germany because of this refugee crisis in 2015 and I am proud to be part of it. Our social system in Germany would have crashed without the many volunteers. Frankly, I did not know we had it in us. After starting two world wars we Germans opened a new chapter in our history, the chapter of compassion.
Now we have the big task of integration to tackle and this won´t work without compassion!
© Inge Schumacher
8 thoughts on “Show True Compassion not Pity”
Reblogged this on 12birdzing by Dan Hersh – musings on astrology and beyond and commented:
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Thank you Dan!
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Mathieu Ricard in his book Altruism supplements what you offer here, Dan, and I think what you offer is just brilliant. Scientists have found that different parts of the brain are activated for different emotions. Pity and compassion come from different places in the brain.
I can see that when I feel pity for someone I am looking down on them, making a judgement about what they should do or feel or be. When I am acting from a place of compassion, we both sit on the same bench together. My goal, becomes, instead, to “give unto others as I would have them give unto me.” What would I want if I were the other person?
Compassion, as you point out, flows from a position of equality. I am not better than the other, but then I am not worse either. An important consideration is that one must have compassion for self and others at the same time and in full measure.
In contrast, those of us who are highly self critical and who, as children, had insufficient nuturing don’t have a full deck to bring to the table. Many, like me, must first learn compassion for ourselves before we can offer compassion rather than pity to another.
Thanks to the Mind and LIfe Institute’s initiative scientists from around the world are giving us the valid and reliable ways to make that change: to develop more compassion for ourselves so that we might then build the bridges of compassion that includes ourselves as well as others.
This journey has been a major project for me for the past two years ago. My life as I knew it depending on to ridding myself of distress compassion. Why? I found myself running away from the man I have loved for the last 40 years because he was in pain. I couldn’t bear it.
With distress compassion, one does not “witness” the pain of another, but enters into it. I acutely feel what I think it their pain, but what is, in fact, my pain projected onto them. Exhaustion follows. I am not unusual, the majority of doctors and nurses suffer from burnout, associated with distress compassion. Some, like me, may also cope at the other end of the spectrum. My way or the highway: I have, for years, acknowledged my God complex, where I see myself acting as if I am responsible, it is up to me to solve the situation. If, in order to avoid the pain, I choose to stay rather than flee, I tend to swoop in like Superwoman. Not unlike the oncologist who orders the most aggressive treatments possible to increase life by a week, a month, or not at all.
In either case, fleeing or fighting, I am focusing on myself and my needs rather than the other person and their needs. I am putting myself first and therefore am looking down, or not at all, at the person and/or the situation that triggered this distress compassion and the resulting flight or fight in me. A rather narcissistic focus, wouldn’t you say?
I have progressed during the two years since I discovered I was hiding from my husband’s pain. I have read the books, the research and many of the papers. I now am able to observe myself go into distress compassion. I meditate daily to nuture self compassion as well as to extend compassion to others. Every once in a while, I can see the beginning of the cracks in the protective wall I had fashioned to protect me from others’ pain and its demands.
I am not sad or afraid. I wish it were different, but then I am certainly enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out this puzzle and present it to you so you might take advantage of these insights that have been so hard won.
If you are wondering where you are in this continuum and have waded through all of these words, I offer you what I found to be a useful self assessment question: people high in distress compassion have a very hard time watching movies which are painful or violent, because we engage without limits. We cannot separate ourselves from the pain.
it was very moving to read your comment and thank you for taking the time to write it. It adds valuable information to my article.
I get what you are going through and wow what a challenge!
Have you ever heard of high sensitivity? Your story makes me think that you could belong to these 20% of the population.
Highly sensitive people typically feel a lot and feel a lot more responsible and often over exhaust themselves because of this. They also don´t like to watch violent movies. I am one of these people and have written a blog article about high sensitivity with lots of information and links at the end should you be interested in learning more:
I send much appreciation to you, Sharon.
Thank you Sunnylnge for the opportunity to become familiar again with what it means to be a highly sensitive person. I particulary enjoyed the opportunity to take advantage of the questionnaire tested for reliability and validity which you included at the end of your blog. The blog did a very thorough job of illustrating how being highly sensitive affects you…and I loved your photos, particularly the iris. The results of my test showed that you may be right: my high score suggests that I am part of the population that is highly sensitive.
I can see that we highly sensitve people would become exhausted more quickly. I less clear about why and how there is a relationship between being highly sensitve and feeling a lot more responsible. In my own case, I refer to this feeling of being a lot more responsible, my “God complex” because it is based on my implicit assumption that it is up to me to swoop in and take care of things. This belief, in turn, is based on the implicit assumptions that others are less competent than I, too lazy, that I have the specific competence needed and that my competence would be welcomed.
I read someplace that those of us how had parents who lived their lives through us and told us we could be, do and have anything have of higher probability of “feeling a lot more responsible.” It seems to me that this attribute is not related to my being highly sensitive, but perhaps there is an association I am missing.
I can now make fun of this syndrom, my God complex, even as I laugh at myself, but it still is very uncomfortalbe to pull it out of hiding and share it on the internet! Too close to home! In my case, this feeling of being responsible feels like it walks hand in glove with the distress empathy I described in my response based on the work of the Buddhist monk/scientist Mathieu Ricard and some of his scientific colleagues.
The very best to you,
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there surely is more than one reason why you might feel more responsible than other people. Childhood is always an important factor!
Why highly sensitive people tend to feel more responsible in my point of view is that they are able to feel and see the connections between everything more than other people. Then they tend to forget themselves when trying to make things right. You can read in Elaine Arons wonderful books more about this.
What you call “God complex” I know, too. For me it is very natural to easily see what needs to be done in my family and who needs what. It took me a looong time to learn that my dear husband of many years does not have the same ability. He is not aware of these things as fast as I am and he does not do this on purpose. I usedto tell him that he was “stupid” for not realizing this or that – now that was “stupid” of me!
I hope this helps a bit.
The very best to you, too!