In our forthcoming book, The Super-Helper Syndrome, the final chapter is called the compassionate life.
Without giving away too much of a spoiler, that chapter comes back to Jess’ own life history which had popped up earlier in the book.
The final chapter starts with the story of how, earlier in her life, Jess struggled with most of the themes covered in the rest of the book:
A thwarted desire to help
Being trapped in a relationship as a carer
Being overwhelmed by the demands of professional care roles when training to become a clinical psychologist
Denying her own needs
The chapter goes on to describe where she has got to now as she attempts to move closer towards the thing that we call the compassionate life.
We provide some final thoughts and encouragement for anyone who might be working through the types of challenges described in the rest of the book, or for anyone wanting to support the helper in their own life.
But we don’t elaborate in detail about what we mean by the compassionate life. So we thought we might explore it a little further here.
In the book we talk, at various points, about three types of compassion: self-compassion, compassion as a motivation to help, and compassion as a perspective. You could think of them as three concentric circles.
Someone who lived by all three of these would then be living the compassionate life.
Taking them in turn . . .
Self-compassion has had plenty of attention in recent years. There’s a whole shelf of books on self-compassion in our house and we could quickly fill the rest of the rooms if we don’t put the brakes on our book-buying habit. Writers including Kristen Neff, Tara Brach and Chris Germer among others have produced a wealth of wisdom about the benefits of being kinder to yourself.
It’s a topic we cover in The Super-Helper Syndrome because the helpers we interviewed acknowledged that they could be kinder to themselves. Looking at the three circles of the compassionate life, this is the one area that helpers knew they could be better at. They were typically highly critical of themselves, despite all the good they were doing for other people.
In the book we looked at self-compassion through three lenses, and we provided some self-compassion exercises to try. The three lenses were: self-kindness, seeing your own humanity and mindfulness. A lack of self-compassion is a lacuna at the centre of any attempt to move towards a more compassionate life.
It’s a vacuum that will ultimately defeat you.
Trying to look after others without looking after yourself leads to all the negative effects that make up the Super-Helper Syndrome. It has to start with yourself, and the book shows how.
The Motivator to Help
The second circle of the compassionate life is compassion as a motivator to help.
In the book we take the reader through a journey of truly understanding your own motivations to help. That starts with the simple question of whether you get anything in return (reciprocity) versus helping for reasons of compassion. In later chapters we look at how the motivation to help can become corrupted by various irrational beliefs that helpers sometimes cling to.
Helping out of compassion (together with the other two circles above) would be the goal for the compassionate life.
We were deeply moved and greatly inspired by the many examples of this that came out of the research we did in order to write the book. Many of the examples are quoted in the words of the helpers we had the honour to interview. Whilst the emphasis in the self-help world has been on self-compassion, the world also needs more people like those we came across: people who are offering their compassion to others in the form of helping. Sometimes, in the fervour to promote self-compassion, this part of the equation is under-emphasised.
Compassion as a Perspective
A compassionate perspective is the outer circle of the compassionate life. By this we mean a more general orientation towards others, approaching them with compassion rather than suspicion or judgement.
In the book we give the example of someone barging into the front of the queue at a buffet table and how the lack of or the presence of a compassionate perspective might predispose us to interpret their behaviour.
For example, we might either assume that they are a rude person, or we might assume they have some genuine reason for their behaviour. Another typical example might be someone cutting across us in traffic. Do we assume they are a reckless and discourteous driver or do we wonder if they are rushing someone to hospital?
The presence or absence of a compassionate perspective affects our perceptions of the world every single day. It influences things like how we react to someone who holds a different political opinion to our own or takes a different standpoint on social or moral questions.
Sadly, a lack of the compassionate perspective seems to be endemic at the moment.
So many of us are ready to dismiss anyone we disagree with. This is most obvious in the world of Twitter and Facebook and other media that allow rapid sparring with strangers. This moves us even further away from practicing compassion.
Instead, a more compassionate perspective would allow space for differences of opinion. It would start from the assumption that others are doing their best. It would sway us towards forgiveness and tolerance, listening and understanding rather than escalation and drumming home our own viewpoint.
The compassionate perspective might be what the world most needs today.
But for the truly compassionate life, a compassionate perspective would surround the inner circles of actively taking action to help others and, equally importantly, self-compassion.
Jess Baker & Rod Vincent are Chartered Psychologists & Co-Authors of the forthcoming book The Super-Helper Syndrome: A survival guide for compassionate people