Can compassion be learned or is it something inherent in certain people? Often times, patients will say they are understanding and empathetic to a particular individual in his or her life, but the actions demonstrated run counter to what is being said. I’ve begun to notice a trend in some of my patients, one that ties into my initial question of compassion: anger, resentment and hostility are usually the expressed before compassion.
One patient of mine, we’ll call him Eric*, came to see me and told me about a friend of his who needed a favor: money. Eric’s friend was in a hole and wanted to borrow some cash to buy Christmas gifts for her family members. As Eric continued to tell the story, he seemed to become enraged at the thought that his friend was asking him for money! As I let Eric continue on with his story and his remarks on the friend’s character and how he no longer saw this individual in a positive way, he mentioned how sorry he was for her. However, his tone, facial expressions and initial reaction said something completely different. When Eric was done presenting his case for why he was mad, I asked him why he appeared so angry and did not show much compassion for someone who was down on her luck. After all, Eric’s story is similar to his friend’s in terms of life experiences. I noticed Eric becoming a bit angry with me for questioning his compassion, or lack thereof. What was I to make of this? Did Eric think I did not believe he was genuinely compassionate? Did I fail to validate his anger? Possibly. After all, I can identify with Eric’s reaction as many of us probably can. People, sometimes even friends, ask us for favors we do not want to perform and we become angry with them. But why?
While it might be specific to Eric’s case, I’ll make the argument that what happened was a narcissistic injury and then a narcissistic rage (something that is common). Eric felt insulted and undermined, thinking that his friend wanted to take advantage of him, use him for her own gain. He unconsciously might have felt the same feelings as he did with an earlier experience in his life- one that produced anger, shame and hostility toward a needy individual. Perhaps Eric thought his individuality was being undermined. Maybe he wanted retaliation and was trying to gain the upper hand as a reaction to a prior feud.
All are possibilities, but for the work moving forward, it is important to see if compassion is ever the primary emotion. It will be important to explore the reasons for the conflict: verbalizing compassion, demonstrating anger.
Compassion is a hybrid of both nature and nurture. We are all products of our environments and often model what was mirrored for us as children. If compassion and sympathy were two emotions that were absent from childhood, it should not be expected that an individual will know how to have these feelings.
My work with Eric and other patients who present similar issues will require me to have compassion and and patience while I seek to gain trust to explore the anger.
*name has been changed to protect the identity of the patient