Contempt, Compassion, and Empathy

Empathy really is a buzz word nowadays. It’s held up by many as the standard of excellence in emotional functioning and the antidote to contempt. Empathy is seen as a higher level of awareness and the solution to social ills. But there is a problem with this ideal.

Empathy is feeling someone else’s emotions as if they are your own. Although on the surface this would seem a noble and compassionate thing, especially when held up in contrast of contempt which is judgement of someone else’s emotions, to feel someone’s emotions is…well…immature, selfish and in fact a form of contempt!

This is not to say understanding someone’s feelings is inappropriate, not in the least. That is the root of compassion, which is a healthy respect for and awareness of the emotions of others.

But in its truest form, empathy is an example of someone with poor boundaries who is unable to distinguish between themselves and others thus feels a strong need to fix the problems for others in order to find peace themselves. Many empaths talk of being overwhelmed and taken advantage of, which is a way of blaming others for their failure to protect themselves by establishing healthy boundaries. To act to change someone else’s circumstances can often be a form of contempt because the message is you know better then they, the victims, do.

Contempt and callous disregard for the feelings of others is an easy target to disparage and the narcissist easy to blame for society’s ills. The person exhibiting contempt is demonstrating rigid boundaries with complete distinction between themselves and others, which is viewed as toxic and dysfunctional. True, there is an imbalance present in this way of coping and to reach authenticity and enlightenment a shift needs to happen away from a focus on the judgemental coping mechanisms into wise and compassionate processes. Yet empathy is not the answer either.

The empath is also often toxic and dysfunctional yet in a way deemed acceptable to society because the appearance of helpfulness and caring, yet the drive is just as internally motivated as the actions of the narcissist. There is an imbalance present here, too, and a shift away from the emotional coping mechanisms into wise and compassionate processes needs to happen.

Compassion does not mean your are suffering with the people you feel compassionate towards. They are not you and you are not them, their emotions are not yours to feel. But compassion does elicit discomfort when imbalance, injustice, or negativity is witnessed. Compassion involves the desire to see balance restored, in whatever form the victim might feel it needs to take. As soon as you decide what form restitution or balance must take, you are no longer being compassionate, you are being contemptuous. To demand anything on anyone’s behalf except your very own, is to show contempt of that person’s or groups’ ability to determine their own needs. And unless they asked for your help, you disempower them by taking up their cause unless you yourself are directly affected by the imbalance.

Don’t mistake activism for compassion and empathy for support. Those without voices do need to be heard, but unless you are one of the voiceless, your sounds will drown out the meaning of their silence. Speaking from a place of experience is the only way to drive change, and listening from a place of compassion if you are not the victim, is the only way to support change.

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