When Our Compassion Fails

I’m working with a group of high school students on compassion. Last week, I asked them all to think about a time when they struggled to feel compassion for someone else. Three students shared their stories with the group and right away, I noticed a pattern.

Each of them was talking about someone they were in relationship with – a close friend or family member.

Each of them highlighted a situation where this person they thought they could trust seemingly betrayed that trust.

When I pointed this out, there were a lot of nodding heads in the circle. We have all experienced a time like that – an instance where someone who loves us and who we think we can rely on does or says something that makes it hard for us to do anything but react in anger or despair.

So do we have to have compassion for that person? There was a robust discussion about whether we are obligated in some way to see their side, to understand where they are coming from.

The short answer is, yes, if you want to remain in relationship with that person. It is absolutely necessary to try to move past our anger or disappointment and express ourselves with compassion in order to maintain a connection.

The rest of the hour was spent trying to figure out how we do that, and we quickly realized that one of the most powerful tools we have is mindfulness. Because practicing self-awareness and naming our emotions helps us to create a space between anger and action, it offers us a way to step back and begin to explore whether we can have compassion instead.

We ran out of time before we could begin to explore whether there are situations that come up where having compassion for others could put us in a more vulnerable position, where we can be betrayed over and over again. The only way these excited students would agree to stop debating that point was when I promised that this week, we will spend our time talking about compassion and personal boundaries, and whether the two are incompatible. (spoiler alert: I don’t think they are. In fact, I think that in order to have any self-compassion, we need to have strong personal boundaries.)

To be sure, there are endless more conversations we can have about compassion, and I intend to have them. For now, I’m thrilled that the students are leading the way with their concerns and ideas and that they are feeling engaged and excited about the work we’re doing.

Please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments if you have ideas to share!

Mindful Parenting: Counterfeit Connection

We all want to be connected to others, to have a tribe, to feel community. This push is particularly strong during adolescence, and it is important during this time to help kids understand what true connection is and what it isn’t.

Unfortunately, we don’t generally form strong bonds with others quickly. Trust and connection require sustained interaction that is consistent over time. We all know how quickly a relationship can be called in to question with one act of betrayal, and how long it takes to restore.

Sometimes, though, we think we can create intimacy and connection quickly, and I have discovered that there are two ways teens and tweens try to do this that  create a false sense of trust and connection and end up backfiring.

  • Oversharing – It’s true that one characteristic of close relationships is personal knowledge. We tend to trust those individuals with whom we are closest with our most intimate secrets. But often, adolescents think that if they share their most personal information with someone else, that will jump start a close relationship. Unfortunately, that isn’t generally how it works. Unless that person has demonstrated that they will honor that disclosure by keeping it safe, this is almost always a bad idea. You simply can’t be sure that a person is reliable or trustworthy without being in relationship with them over a period of time. It is important for parents to talk to teens about how they know someone else can be trusted and why they are choosing to be vulnerable.
  • Gossip – There is nothing that binds people like a common adversary, and while they may not realize what they’re doing, many adolescents share other people’s secrets as a way to create intimacy with their own friends. Not only does it make us look better when we compare ourselves to someone else’s shameful mistake, but letting our friends know that we trust them enough to share a secret seems important, even if it wasn’t our secret to tell. In the long run, this tactic will not work by its very nature because in the act of gossiping, we are demonstrating that we ourselves are not trustworthy. This can feel like a powerful bond in the short term, but it does nothing to build authentic connections with others.

There are many elements of a healthy, strong relationship, and they all take time. That is not very comforting news to a lonely teenager, but the more we talk to them about what kinds of friendships they want to have and why, the more they can begin to make choices about how they interact with others. One way to do this is to talk about the people in their life that they trust the most and why. Ask them how these people have shown them, over time, that they truly care for them, and share information about your closest, most trusted relationships with them. Contrast that with people who may have betrayed their trust and yours. Ask if they have ever worked hard to regain someone else’s trust after they broke it and what that was like.

As parents, we want our kids to have good relationships, but it isn’t as easy as deciding who to hang out with. They need to understand what goes in to a good relationship, too.