Maintaining compassion during another’s distress

Those who veer from standard behavior are likely to arouse bewilderment, fear and criticism by observers. Any unanticipated conduct by another driver, passenger, colleague or acquaintance that destabilizes us and evokes fear, anger or unrighteousness, will produce negative judgment about the “offender” and be retold to gain support, relief and empathy from others. How can we stay compassionate with the storyteller without blaming the “offender”?

It is common to feel critical and judgmental about another’s conduct even if we have not witnessed the egregious act in order to support the distressed information giver. We also accept the report as “factual” and validate the reporter’s anger and judgment of the “offender”. Though this may soothe the information giver, this “compassionate approval” may be unkind and unfair to the “accused” and may damage the pre-existing positive relationship between the narrator and his/her “wayward” friend.

Psychiatrist Murray Bowen, one of the pioneers of family therapy, coined the term “Triangulating”. He stated, “Triangles usually involve two individuals or entities in conflict, and another entity or individual uninvolved with the conflict who is brought in. The insiders bond when they prefer each other, but in the case of conflict, another entity or individual (the outsider) is brought in. This is an effort by one of the two insiders to either defuse and avoid the situation, or to team up against the other insider.”

Pitting a present person against an absent one about a situation the listener has not witnessed is common. We may want to adhere to our sense of fairness by resisting joining in condemning a behavior that we have not witnessed, as we validate the complainer’s distress.

There are some individuals whose personality style is more conducive to eliciting support for self-assurance, even when it is not merited. How can we stay kind and objective without joining in condemning another person about conduct we have not witnessed? We can choose to clarify to the speaker that though we empathize with his/her distress and anger about being poorly treated, not having witnessed the situation first hand inhibits us from being a fair judge of the facts. We can also encourage him/her to personally address the issue directly with the offender, if possible. Having one’s sense of injustice validated can lead to great emotional relief.

Be helpful and compassionate:

  • Validate the offended person’s emotions.
  • Abstain from judging the “offender”.
  • Encourage the individuals’ face-to-face resolution.



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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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