Feb 28

How To Be Compassionate In the Face of Difficult Behavior

mother-sonI was recently reading a fascinating book about the challenges faced by some men in finding love. Titled “When He’s Married To Mom”, by Dr. Kenneth Adams, the book is about what happens when a mother has a strained relationship with her husband, and begins looking to her young son to fill some of the void. (The book focuses on when this happens to a young son.) She confides in him about her personal issues, asks him to escort her to various events, behaves in a controlling and jealous manner, etc.
The book describes the emotional bind that this kind of behavior creates for a young son, and the various ways this would hamper him in creating healthy, loving relationships in his adult life.
As I was reading this book, two thoughts went through my mind. One was a sense of gratitude. Though I did have various difficulties with my parents as I was growing up, I am grateful that this kind of ‘enmeshment’ is not one of them. My mother never looked to me to replace her husband in her life.
The second thought was a sense of deep compassion. I realized that so often people act in ways that are annoying, irritating, or plain difficult to deal with. It can be puzzling to us as to why they behave that way, and there is a temptation to judge and condemn them. “He is really messed up, he cannot commit”, we might say. Or “He is a womanizer” or “He is an overgrown child who doesn’t know what it means to be an adult” or “He cannot make decisions”.
The book reminded me that so much of the problematic behavior we see in others is like the tip of the iceberg. We see the annoying behaviors but we typically do not see the underlying roots of those behaviors—the childhood experiences, the struggles, the traumas, etc. Judging and condemning people for this only adds another layer of pain.
If we seek to be compassionate, what are our choices? On the one hand, to be compassionate does not mean to accept hurtful behavior or to keep in our circle people who act in a hurtful way. This is part of setting healthy boundaries—deciding what we want in our lives and what is not good for us.
Where compassion enters into this is in the attitude of our hearts towards these people. Do we judge them as being ‘bad’, or do we have the awareness that there are often subconscious reasons for how people behave?
So compassion has two sides to it. We are compassionate towards ourselves by setting healthy boundaries, and avoiding interaction with people or behaviors that are hurtful to us. And at the same time we are compassionate to others by refraining from judgment and condemnation, and remembering that we usually don’t know the true causes of people’s behavior. We don’t know how we would behave had we had their background and experiences.

© 2012 Bernard Uzi Weingarten

If you have found this article of value and want to explore these skills further and master them, I invite you to the first two sessions of my next Communicating Effectively With Compassion tele-course, FREE as my guest. Register at uziteaches.com