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Compassion for Others Doesn’t Mean Mistreatment of You

I hear many clients speak with great compassion of their spouses or partners who mistreat them. They say, “Oh, but he had such a horrible life. I need to show him I love him to make up for what his parents did to him.” Or, insist, “She really suffered and I’m strong and can take whatever she dishes out.” Where is it written that just because someone has suffered that they have the right to hurt us? Nowhere, that’s where.

The problem occurs when compassion only flows one way—outward—when it needs to be bi-directional. We want to feel empathy and kindness towards others, of course, but we also want to feel it equally toward ourselves. How can we feel kindly toward ourselves when we are letting others hurt and take advantage of us? How about feeling as compassionate to ourselves as we do to others?

Perhaps we got confused about compassion in childhood. If we had parents who were unkind and mistreated us blatantly or subtly, yet were also deserving of compassion, our hearts went out to them. To Mom who got hit by Dad or Dad who got nothing but disparagement from Mom. To our brother who was blamed for everything bad that happened in the family or to our sister who was in and out of hospitals all her childhood and never got to do the things that normal children do.

In the case of parents, our thinking developed something like this. Bad things will happen to me if I don’t feel compassionate and take care of them, but nothing bad will happen if I don’t feel compassionate towards myself. This was probably true. It was adaptive to feel kindly disposed to parents we depended on physically and emotionally. And so we developed the pattern of extending empathy to others and ignoring our needs for self-compassion.

Now, as adults, it’s time to do a 180 in our thinking. We need to realize that nothing bad will happen to us if we don’t take care of someone else’s feelings, but that bad things are sure to happen if we don’t offer ourselves compassion. What are those bad things? When we take abuse or neglect, it hurts and we eat mindlessly. And then we eat more because we are upset that we ate mindlessly.

It’s necessary to separate feeling compassion for others from not allowing them to treat you poorly. Your putting up with bad behavior only makes you the one to suffer. A better shot at a positive relationship with food won’t happen til you reduce stress and suffering.