Compassion Is a Relationship Between Equals

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.

—Pema Chodron

I attended Salon 360° yesterday and got to share and listen to people’s thoughts about the Will Smith slap and other challenging situations in our country right now. I’m incredibly grateful for the respectful space and different perspectives people shared. I’m also aware there were people who remained on mute, which has me curious about what they experienced on the Zoom. What happened in their hearts and minds as they listened?

While I have found it automatic to criticize another human being for aggressive behavior, I have also learned to look deep inside my own heart and lived experiences to recognize the moments in my life when I have not been my best self, when I have been cruel and reacting out of pain. All those moments when I’ve said unkind words, I knew deep down I intended to hurt another’s heart especially if it came out as sarcasm. I still knew those words and the emotions imbued in the words impacted another person’s heart. Some part of me wanted others to feel as horrible as I was feeling. My hurting, unresolved internal pain lashed out, often irrationally.

I exhibited defensiveness along with self-righteousness about inflicting hurt on other people who had hurt me or behaved badly towards me. While it seemed like some form of self-defense, I have hurt other people’s hearts. And this pattern did not release my own internal pain. I was a hurting person hurting people.

Facing my own darkness and ability to be cruel with my unkind words, I knew I needed to face my shame, how now ashamed of myself I truly felt. I even thought, I know why no one really loves me the way I want to be loved. I behave very badly. I really am a worthless piece of s*(&. I didn’t know how to fully love myself, forgive myself, or remain silent when all the pain rose so strong and then flew out my mouth.

Sitting in my own remorse and seeking professional support, I bravely began to confront my own darkness, the pain I had been unwilling to face or sit with or have anyone else sit with me in that darkness. I gained tools in my ability to be with hurt, to go back in time to original incidents-to glean enough content from those past traumas to begin to allow them to uncoil, and fully process through my body and nervous system. I wept and purged a lot of pain in safe ways without hurting anyone. I said the F word a lot. I still do in solitude or with a somatic healer when another ghost memory gets triggered by a current challenging situation.

I believe so many of us haven’t learned to sit with our own pain and therefore we lack the tools or empathy skills to sit with other people’s pain, or to look into the eyes of people who are suffering. Sometimes you and I might have contempt or pity for these individuals or maybe you and I make some effort to understand aggressive or violent behavior, then condemn that behavior.

Have you and I looked inside at our own capacity to be cruel to other people?

Until more of us do the internal work to stare at the darkness in our own souls and gain tools for processing through our own pain-including discovering safe, healthy ways for releasing anger, grief, anguish, unresolved traumas, then many of us may struggle to cultivate compassion, which includes cognitive empathy, for ourselves and other people such as Will Smith or protesters who have done violent behaviors or the mother who is beating the crap out of her children in the grocery line.

There’s much healing that needs to take place inside human beings right now.

Learning emotional regulation and how to process through past or current traumas is essential right now for most everyone I know.

Learning ways to listen to another person’s pain with cognitive empathy and compassion takes practice because many of us engage in the other less helpful ways including controlling, dismissing, pitying, advice-giving, shaming, and narrative takeover.

Maybe your own version of a “Will Smith moment” didn’t take place in a public venue, but you recognize you have engaged in behavior not aligned with your deepest held values and/or not aligned with your highest and best self. And if you don’t know if you have one of these moments, I encourage you to ask your closest friends, family, and colleagues with genuine curiosity and brave openness. If they feel safe enough to share their experiences with you, I feel confident they will tell you the truth. They may also let you know the many gifts you possess, and the goodness they know resides in your heart.

My greatest wish is to live in a world where more people actively engage their internal healing with expanded self-awareness, empathy, and compassion and cultivate the tools and skills for emotional health and mental wellness. I want my great, great, great-grandchildren to live in a world in which people treat one another with loving-kindness, deep respect, and dignity. There are enough challenges in a human life living on the ever-changing planet Earth with the death of loved ones, cancer, heart disease, deadly viruses, diseases of many types, traffic accidents, sinkholes, earthquakes, violent storms, and tsunamis. When more of us human beings can learn to love and nurture ourselves and other humans, I do believe a certain harmony and peacefulness is possible. You and I have a great deal of brave work to do to learn to love and care about ourselves and one another. I’m audacious enough to believe in the power of love and the capacity of the human spirit to expand in consciousness and magnificence. I hope you are too.

With heartfelt gratitude to all the people who joined the Zoom with Salon 360° yesterday- especially Dennis Pitocco, Melissa Hughes, PhD, Mark O’Brien, and Kevin R. Strauss. Thank you all.

Editor’s Note: We invite you to join Laura and so many others who are ready and willing to make “shift” happen – read more here: Walking the Talk: Shift Starts Here


Laura Staley
Laura Staley
The founder of Cherish Your World, Laura Staley passionately helps people thrive by guiding them to a holistic transformation of space, heart, mind, body, and soul. Laura knows that there’s a relationship between the conditions of our homes or workplaces and the quality of our lives. Trained and certified with the Western School of Feng Shui and seasoned by almost two decades of working with a variety of clients, Laura uses her intuition and expertise to empower her clients to produce remarkable results in their lives. Her trifecta of serving people includes speaking, writing, and compassionate listening. As a columnist, Laura writes personal essays focused on self-discovery, feng shui, emotional health, and transformations from the inside out. Laura is the published author of three books: Live Inspired, Let Go Courageously and Live with Love: Transform Your Life with Feng Shui, and the Cherish Your World Gift Book of 100 Tips to Enhance Your Home and Life. Prior to creating her company, Laura worked as a fulltime parent and an assistant professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. She earned a Ph.D. in political science from The Ohio State University. Her joys in life include laughing with loved ones, dancing, reading, meditating, running, being in nature, and listening to music she loves. She resides in Black Mountain, NC with lovable dog, Layla. Laura is a contributing author to the inspiring book Crappy to Happy: Sacred Stories of Transformational Joy

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  1. Oh, I’m grateful to learn a bit about Transactional Analysis-as I’m not familiar with this approach-though I definitely heard of the book-I’m Ok, You’re Ok. Sounds very meaningful to the healing process-and I imagine how I can be all three of those “roles/behaviors”-within myself-Parent, Childlike, Adult–and ask myself which one showed up in my conversation?

    I love the Pema Chodron quote, too. And in a healing process I do believe there are places in which the healer is “parenting” especially when the “wounded” shows up in their child position (what I call-all my inner children-or younger emotional selves-the pieces and parts). How important to discern who has shown up to any given conversation so “wires don’t get crossed.”

    I’m finding the Atlas of the Heart series with Brene Brown PhD so incredibly inspiring on HBO Max. I think you might enjoy this, too! An FYI in this realm. Her words/wisdom/role playing inspired this piece of writing-along with the amazing discussion on Zoom.

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful reflections as I continue to learn from you, Charlotte. Very grateful, indeed.

  2. I love the quote you started off with, Laura.

    Eons ago I was introduced to Transactional Analysis – the theory behind books like “I’m OK, You’re OK”, where the central paradigm is that we can behave in a parenting way, an adult way, or a childlike way.
    In Chodron’s quote the healer is “parenting” but a parent requires a “child” to be effective. If a “wounded” speaks from their “child” position, it would be OK that the healer is “parenting”. But then it is not compassion among equals.
    When one speaks like an “adult” and gets a response from a “parent”, the lines cross and communication goes awry. And in the highlighted part of your post, you beautifully describe many of the ways we “parent”.