How do you have compassion for people who seem incapable of having any for you? How do you practice patience with people who are full of venom and rage? First of all, you have to make yourself safe. If this is a person who has to be in your life, like a family member you’re unwilling or unable to cut off, then boundaries are your priority. Once you’ve made yourself safe, then it’s a matter of figuring out how to communicate in a way that feels okay to you. That might mean email only, or it might mean that you never leave yourself vulnerable. For example, if you grew up with an abusive parent, maybe it means you stay at a hotel when you go home to visit (assuming you want to visit at all). You don’t put yourself in a vulnerable and powerless position. You protect your tender heart, and you put a high value on your own well-being, physically, mentally and emotionally.
I get a lot of emails from people who’ve been through an acrimonious divorce, and are unable to communicate with their exes in a healthy way. If you have children with someone, that’s such a heartbreak for everyone involved, but sometimes there’s no way around it. There are personality disorders that render people incapable of understanding how things are for anyone but themselves. There are people who cling to their rage because it’s the only shield they’ve got. There are people who truly revise history so it resembles something they can live with, where they get to be this wonderful person, and you get to be the villain. Again and again I’ll remind you, you cannot save anyone. You’re not going to “show someone the light” with your logic or your pleading or your version of history. Sometimes you’re dealing with narcissism or borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder or depression, sometimes you’re dealing with addiction. In any of those cases, trying to reason isn’t going to get you far.
The way to find compassion if you’re dealing with someone like this, is to understand they are in pain. Underneath all that rage and venom and instability, is a giant well of pain and anguish. And a lot of the time, people who are suffering this way truly believe their version of reality. There’s nothing you can do except hope they’re going to find relief at some point, and keep yourself at a safe distance in the meantime. Obviously you try to find help and support for people, but a person has to be ready to accept it, and then they have to be willing to work. That isn’t always the case. And let me just say that having compassion for someone does not mean you allow them to harm you, or you excuse their cruel or abusive behavior. It means you recognize the pain, you understand you cannot fix it for them, and you find a way to deal with them while you also honor your own tender heart.
A lot of the time, we try to make things black and white, but they rarely are. So much of life and human behavior exists in the grey area. We like to make people “good” or “bad”, but very few people are all one or the other. And sometimes we take things personally that have nothing to do with us. Sometimes you just represent something to someone. You’re a convenient target because you seem happy or together or responsible or inspiring, and this other person feels none of those things. There’s no need to engage or defend yourself when a person creates a fictional character and says that’s who you are. If you know who you are, and you feel comfortable with the way you’ve handled yourself, or maybe you’ve apologized for your end, there’s nothing more you need to do, except release yourself from the drama. Life is really too short for that. You can feel badly that someone is so stuck they have no recourse but to lash out, but you really don’t have the time to participate in unraveling the fiction. It’ll burn out eventually, anyway. There will be a new target, a new injustice.
As for strangers who do or say things you find totally incomprehensible, I’d say the same holds true. When people do things that are cruel or inhumane, you can bet they’re coming out of a very unhappy environment. Maybe they were abused, neglected, abandoned. There are so many stories out there that just break your heart. When I see someone doing something or saying something I find repugnant, I also remind myself that that cannot be a happy way to move through life, filled with rage. And I wonder what happened to that person as a child, what went wrong along the way. I wonder how he or she learned to hate, or learned to close down or lash out. And on my good days, I try to send some love. That’s all we can do, really. Sending you some right now, Ally Hamilton