How do you create love and respect in a relationship when the other person isn’t supporting the process? If you’re like most people, you care a great deal about the people you’re in some kind of relationship with. You might want to be compassionate and be able to listen to them in a caring way, but it might seem like the other person isn’t trying to help the situation or that they’re being negative or interacting in less than productive ways. Does any of this sound familiar? If so you’re probably feeling confused, frustrated, and perhaps even guilty about not being able to be nicer to this person you care about.
We believe these feelings come from misunderstanding the true meanings of compassion and caring. Here’s what we mean: in many people’s minds empathy and compassion are often associated with self-sacrifice or selflessness. People think that if you are a compassionate person you ALWAYS behave compassionately and are able to listen caringly – no matter how you feel. This can be especially difficult when embroiled in a relationship that is creating hurt feelings and other kinds of emotional pain.
The notion that one should be selfless and just sacrifice their feelings for the sake of getting along is far from the truth as we see it. Most people want to cultivate compassion and learn empathic listening to enhance their relationships, to create closeness and understanding. This can only happen when you actually want to do this, when empathizing with the other person is the most wonderful thing you can imagine doing in that moment.
Also, empathy is not just something we offer other people. We find that many people don’t understand how to use self-empathy – listening caringly to yourself. Yet it’s a vital ingredient in learning to understand yourself in order to stay true to what’s most important to you. And these are essential building blocks for creating closeness and understanding with others.
Empathy is not always beneficial
If you attempt to listen empathically to another person when you would much rather be doing something else, two things are likely to happen. First, you’ll probably feel resentment and become judgmental about that person and their behavior. This happens because you’re not being honest with yourself; you’d rather be doing something else but because of some idea that you should listen compassionately to this person no matter what, you go against your own desires.
When this happens, it is easy to begin blaming them for the lack of happiness you feel with thoughts such as, if they would only … stop complaining, think positively, get a different job, stop being so negative, get some friends … or any number of other ideas you believe would help the relationship.
Second, whenever you listen to someone with these kinds of negative thoughts running around in your head, they are sure to detect the resentment and judgmental attitude sooner or later. This will create just the opposite of the understanding and closeness you hope for and will continue to tear down any hope of a healthy, happy relationship.
Following, NOT sacrificing, your feelings
In dealing with a situation like this start by giving yourself permission NOT to empathize, not to just throw your emotional pain out the window in the spirit of self sacrifice. Be honest with yourself about how you feel and what’s most important to you in each moment. Never attempt to be empathetic unless it’s the most wonderful thing you can imagine doing in that moment.
We suggest you start using your emotions as your guide in knowing when to empathize and when to step away. Being true to what would give you joy in the moment is one of the most important first steps you can take not only to get along, but to create the closeness and understanding you want.
When you begin to be more honest with yourself about how you are and what you want, it’s easier to accept others as they are. This is the key to saving your relationship if it’s lacking love and respect. Practicing this requires many more understandings and skills than we can go into here. However, we would like to offer you two practical exercises we believe will improve a situation in which one party is not able to cooperate in the way you want them to.
Since we’re positive that what you focus your attention on grows, we recommend you begin making lists of the other party’s positive qualities, the things you enjoy about them, what you are grateful for about them. These can be things from the past or present, and nothing is too small to include.
When you’ve completed the initial list, any time you feel uncomfortable or hear yourself beginning to judge the other person, take out your list and read it. When you’re done reading it, add at least one more thing to the list.
Cultivate more joy in your life. To do this you must be very clear about what is most important to you–what you value most deeply in specific situations–what qualities bring joy to your life. Once you do this investigation, narrowed your list of values down to the three qualities that would bring you the most joy in your current situation, come up with at least two things that you can start doing right now that will help you experience more of these qualities in your life.
For example, if you do the values investigation and find that connection with people brings you a lot of joy, you might come up with a list of friends you can call when you’re not able to get the quality of connection you want from the troubling relationship. If you find that play and exercise are important, plan ways you can have more play or exercise with your children or friends.
This shift in your relationship starts when you realize that your happiness does not depend on others’ actions and that you can stay true to yourself and find alternative ways to experience what you value. We are confident that this shift will help you have less resentment and dissatisfaction, will greatly improve your ability to be compassionate and listen empathically, and boost the love and respect of experience in all your relationships.
So let’s recap:
1. Pay more attention to how you are and what you want most (Practice Self Empathy).
2. Focus more on what you can be grateful for about the other party.
3. Take responsibility for bringing the qualities that cultivate joy into your life.