Compassion in a Narcissistic World

There are times when I struggle to have compassion for others. Although it comes easier some days, many days I find myself in an “I’m right, you’re wrong” stance. This happens, of course, when people disagree with me. Or when I’m feeling victimized. Often those times occur simultaneously, which is no surprise.

Luckily, I’ve discovered that there are ways out of this bind. I’m working on building my skills in this area, so I’m writing about it now to organize my own thoughts.

Jessica Benjamin wrote a psychology paper about the “doer / done-to” dynamic that happens in relationships. She emphasized how easily (in our all-about-me society) we fall into a victim-perpetrator way of being together. You may know what I mean…this kind of togetherness consists of the one-way street of feeling used or attacked or taken for granted by someone else. It’s the forgetting that there is another side to every story. That there is more than just you. That the “perpetrator” has a one way-street of his own, and is likely feeling as “done-to” as you are. And, to complicate matters more, in any relationship, there is more than two one-way streets. There are two-way streets and, especially in families, highways! The psychology of how people come together is endlessly complex and multiply-determined. And, given that truth, how are we supposed to get along??

I recently found a minute to organize my kids’ clothes (new season, new sizes). The task of organizing hand-me-downs drives me nuts. I hate doing it. Yet it must be done (sigh of resignation). I do this (dreadful) chore in our guest room, where there is a bed to put the clothes on. I haven’t been in this room in months, and in my absence, our cat has moved in. And covered the entire bed, including blankets that don’t belong there, with her fur. And her puke. Yes. The bed and my collection of cute toddler naptime blankets are crusted in cat puke and fur. So, now my dreadful project just got worse, since I have to clean the bed, too.

Here is a sample of my internal victim monologue: “Who put these blankets here? I’ll bet it was my husband. He slept up here once. Can’t he tell baby blankets from adult blankets? Doesn’t he know the cat would wreck them?? And that stupid cat…I’m so done with her. Can you say lethal injection? And my kids…maybe they did it. Ugh! Why does everyone have to make my life HARDER??!? I am going to go wreck all of their stuff and puke all over everything! And I’m not making dinner ANY MORE!”

This is me being “done-to.” Being narcissistic. Driving wrecklessly down my one-way street. The trick in these moments is to flip my perspective. To imagine the tired, sick, delerious state my husband was in when he went to sleep in the guest room with too-small blankets. Or to imagine the fort my kids may have been building in there with the blankets. And (now here is a stretch) to imagine my old-lady cat gagging on furballs (delish). Essentially, the trick is to appreciate many perspectives at once. (While also trying to not lose my own, but that’s another blog.)

I do this better some days than others. But when I do, I feel more relaxed and connected to everyone. I feel the relief of intimacy, which is not possible when you’re being (mentally) victimized.

What’s that song “life is a highway”? That’s pretty much it.

Happy cruising.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.


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