How to use compassion to rise above the hate and intolerance of others
If you prefer to listen, here’s the podcast version of this post on iTunes and Soundcloud
We all want to be nice, tolerant and caring people – because it feels good. It rewards us. However, we are human, and sometimes it can be a challenge to stay in that mindset, especially if people are deliberately cruel and hateful. Anger and hate are so blind and dangerous, usually the safest reaction is to simply shutdown and ignore. Because the same emotions can come up when we witness intolerance: if you don’t understand someone and their beliefs betray everything you hold sacred, it can sting every nerve inside you — inciting a hate and intolerance for their beliefs even existing.
It’s tough to be willing to understand others, especially when they embody emotions that are so primitive. It’s like looking into a boiling pot of fire and toxic sludge that’s spitting at you – and attempting to honor and respect it. It can feel like a betrayal of self, and worse, just interacting with it can infect you and bring you down. There are lots of toxic people out there, and because of their power to hurt, the natural reaction is to self-protect and stay as far away from them as possible. But when it comes to people you love, live with, or work with— you can’t shut them out of your life – so this is a set of tools to help you in the face of that. It’s an advanced personal practice of sorts, in that it elevates you above the emotion – via a way to understand them and better relate to why they are the way they are. Because in the face of intolerance, the best weapon is always a state of non-judgment and compassion.
To ignore and self-protect is only a temporary fix to manage the situation and avoid personal injury. But if you’re strong enough, there is a state you can graduate to – PAST that point of managing – one comparable to enlightenment: compassion. It’s challenging but also freeing, in that it educates you in ways that allow you to let things go. It’s a practice that can help you in all areas of your life – while you help soothe and cure others of their toxicity. Most importantly, it can be an effective and powerful solution to being capable of loving someone or dealing with someone toxic in your life – for example a family member. When you use this super human tool, you both rise above the effects of the hate – and give the person trapped in hate an acknowledgement of their humanity. Which can be unexpectedly effective in soothing and extinguishing their hate – something that ultimately comes from pain that blinds them.
So this is to help you begin to foster this tool, so that you can empower yourself in moments you’re being emotionally accosted. As you practice compassion, you will grow your ability to embody love and kindness in the moments you need it most. It grows a part of you that stays with you like armor, and inside, you remain in a state of Zen-like balance. This is a conscious practice – and it requires effort, but if you proactively train yourself to resume this tolerant mode, you can stay out of the receiving position of another’s vehemence and hatred, forever. Hate literally, cannot touch you. How awesome is that?! So with that goal in mind – let’s get started with the what/why/how: the tools. Yay.
On a basic level, a lack of compassion is embedded in the fabric of modern society. We are a culture built on ‘survival of the fittest’ – so as a society, we are very competitive and individualistic. To succeed and build the ideal form of “self” our instinct is to put ourselves first. To soften to others unlike us and attempt to see where they are coming from, culturally – is irrelevant, and can feel like a waste of time.
On a different level, there is a sickness that can build in those who start as normal, functioning individuals, and the causes vary. People who choose to hate others for who they are or what they do, often without reason – or sometimes for their own rigid reasons. Sometimes this hate comes from an old set of beliefs brought up into them, sometimes it’s a moral judgment, or a popular belief that they have chosen to use as a speakerphone for hatred. Sometimes it seems to come from absolutely nowhere – and it has no clear label. And because it’s so strong, hate and intolerance can cancel out the value of a loving bond altogether. So family will mean nothing in the face of it. Sometimes individuals or groups of individuals embrace the blindness of hate – they adopt any and all badges or archetypes that embody it, as it’s simply hate in the purest form that they’ve become.
My grandmother was nice to anyone and everyone, including the most spiteful and hate-filled. I believe, because she saw past that to the human inside, who was being driven to feel such hate. Back in the day, in England she had a women’s group who would meet at their church, and there was a little boy who would come in and cause a ruckus. Full of hostility, he would break things and even punched her once or twice. She would always be kind and ask the little boy, “What’s wrong?” She persisted with kindness and compassion – despite his violence toward her. One day when she stopped him, he finally yelled back at her, “Why are you so nice to me— why aren’t you like my mom…” All intolerance and hate comes from somewhere. This kid who was violent toward my grandmother – was trying to create the “proper” reaction in her, because his mom was unloving toward him. Because to believe your mom – who is meant to care for you– is unloving, is intolerable for a little boy. So in the face of a person filled with hate and intolerance, see the human underneath that – assume it’s there, and you will more likely call it forth. When people still respond with rage in the face of being treated like humans – it’s because they believe themselves to be bad, and they are trying to make you confirm that to them. I believe every kind of hatred has a root.
Compassion is a state that we were designed for, and it’s one I believe we should aspire to. It’s what I want to be like – that’s why I’m sharing it with you. Compassion is an elevated state shared with the enlightened. The most powerful spiritual leaders in history practiced compassion, and it’s the cornerstone to most faiths. The basic gist of how to live compassionately is, “Do not do unto others that which you would not like done to you.” Which means – never make anyone feel the way you would not want to feel. When you really break down what that means in your own life, you realize – it’s likely something you need to try a LOT harder to do. As a culture, we do things that are not compassionate all the time – and for the most part, it’s totally unconscious. Why? Because it’s normal – a part of the way we operate in society. I realized in myself immediately that I do things – unconsciously –all the time that I would not like done to me. It’s not that it’s ineffective to be compassionate in everything we do, it’s that we just never think about it as important. I had never thought of it before a week or two ago– it’s not something we consider often as important to modern society. And yet, when you can treat someone with compassion – even in the way you deliver information to them – it changes how they feel soooo dramatically. When you’re treated with compassion, it can change how you feel about life and the world as a whole. So yeah – regardless, it’s hugely important and valid to practice in all situations. (With the important exception of engaging with those from whom you must self-protect.)
Why People Become Full of Hate and Intolerance:
For the most part, people who are filled with hate and intolerance are expressing a form of fear. When people hate others they feel vulnerable and threatened – often due to low self-esteem and feelings of powerlessness. The hatred comes from feeling threatened: our fight-or-flight response is activated and the more reflective parts of the brain are shot off so we can run. For even “good” or tolerant people, culturally–there’s a built in need to be right that often cancels out our ability to be compassionate. And that need to be right is really due to the fear of being wrong. When we operate from a purely thought-driven place for the majority of life – never shutting down to relax and reflect, the ego – the “computer” organ of the body, can grow overly dominant to a devastating degree. If we don’t stop to allow ourselves to reflect and go beyond the ego, we instead operate directly from the stress-response, or, “I’m right. You’re not. Let me prove it any way possible to feel better about myself.”
This part of our brain – the selfish ego who wants to be right – is what is built into us by evolution. It’s the most primitive part of our brain – the one that evolved first, and it’s the part of the brain that was designed for survival. It’s called the reptilian brain because it’s the part we share with all animals, including reptiles. It calculates threat and when it senses it, it shuts down the other newer parts of the brain so we can stop thinking and run or fight. These threat-defense mechanisms were developed 500 million years ago and they are motivated by what they call the four f’s: feeding, fighting, fleeing – and (ahem) reproduction. So this stress response is quite literally the most basic part of us.
Because it is an automatic response to threat, we don’t even need to think before we act to protect our self when we feel threatened or injured. So most of what we perceive as intolerance, is actually an instinctive response to feeling threatened. In humans – this part of the brain creates strong, automatic emotions that are very self-protective and disable the other parts of our brain – hence the blindness you might perceive. They are designed to cancel out more rational thoughts and help us run away – grab a stick! Fight!
Thankfully we evolved past reptiles! Humans have a part of the brain called our “new brain” that we don’t share with any other form of life. This is the part of our brain that allows us to reflect, create and choose other than our instinctual, passionate threat-responses.
Taking into account how the brain works and what it is capable of at its highest level, here are some of the most common reasons people come from hate and intolerance:
- They are filled with self-hate already. Feelings that reflect upon everything around them in the world.
- It makes them feel better about themselves to put someone lower.
- It’s a self-defense mechanism: to push threat away.
- It’s a lack of understanding that they are protecting with brute force.
- When people attach to the flaws of others it is a way to protect their own terms of self-worth.
- They feel powerful to hurt or shock others.
- They or they’ve adopted beliefs via upbringing, or a family member created the standard of beliefs in them, therefore they are portraying what they believe to be normal.
- They feel weak, humiliated and existentially unimportant. So the sense of insignificance drives destructive acts. It makes them feel big: think – people who assassinate famous people.
- They were abused or they are confirming the childhood role created by a parent or authority figure. Meaning, hearing “You’re a bad kid,” from everyone around you or being abused by a parent will create a kid who acts like a bad kid who deserves abuse. They empower themselves in the face of helplessness by becoming the creator of their situation. Just like a kid who is sexually abused will begin to act sexualized.
You might be thinking, that sucks – but why are these screwed up people my problem? Well, it’s selfish, really.
Here are some reasons that compassion is a good thing for you:
- When you come from compassion, you lose your fear of others. This is truly a tool for strengthening yourself.
- When you are in a state of closeness with others, you are in a state of mind that’s more peaceful. This is where you can reach new insights and exist in mental clarity, free from anxiety. This calm, relaxed state is activated by such hormones as Oxytocin. First created by the bond between mother and baby. Feeling compassionate is like a free high!
- Kindness is a life-beautifier. It improves quality of life via our immediate social circles, and it ripples outwards and makes a much more fun and productive society. Via your immediate circle, it makes your whole life better– just like spreading a loving, inspiring virus.
- To leave kind acceptance is to succumb to the toxic force of intolerance, yourself. So this is your greatest tool to avoiding the pain and toxicity of fear and anger. Compassion has the power to alter the force of anger – because it is no longer received. It has no where to land. And therefore it loses its power. Like a free set of armor!
- You can actually open up the possibility to get the new, loving experiences you want for yourself from family members or others who are closed off. The threat center is not activated when we approach with kindness, which is why when people are encouraged, they do a thousand times better at learning and pretty much every other task. With simple encouragement to be human, people thrive. It is from a state of non-judgment and compassion that you have a rare opportunity to be heard, and in turn – allow another person’s good to be seen by themselves. So if you crave a connection to a person, compassion will set up the most potential.
- It’s in your true nature to be compassionate. We are born wanting to socialize and relate to others. We are taught by culture to be self-interested and competitive and our lowest form of thinking tells us, “survive for yourself!” But we evolved past that brain – and we are gifted with reflection. This comes down to choosing to use that power by staying conscious, and not reactive. Humans are hardwired to be compassionate to other humans, regardless of whether or not you’re related in bloodline. When you see another person in danger – let’s say a child is about to fall off the edge of a balcony: you won’t think before you run and help them. This would be an immediate response, and not something calculated. You would immediately relate to the child as one of your own. It’s the same reason you cry when you see a person in extreme emotional pain in a movie. We feel for one another, by default. The only thing that STOPS this innate connection is a disconnection to our present and feeling self. It’s the result of a lack of consciousness. Which is how many of us live: on autopilot. When you see a nice human driving and stressed out in traffic yell horrible things, they are capable of that because they are in an unconscious state: the rage is reactive. When you are conscious and aware, you reflect and CHOOSE how to act.
Unconsciousness can also be habituated by repetition. For example, when you pass a homeless person on the street who is begging for food – you stop seeing them as human because of a habit of tuning them out. So you choose not to make eye contact and ignore, which allows you to become deliberately unconscious: this is a disconnection with the present moment as well as a disconnection from your humanity. For convenience, we often choose to cut off from our humanity and our consciousness – because it’s easier and culturally – it’s “normal.” However, when your humanity is called forth, everything resets: for example – if you were to see other people trying to help the homeless person– you would immediately become conscious of the person’s humanity.
So that’s what a constant state of compassion is all about: coming back to your own humanity: to using your balanced left and right hemispheres and not retreating to the unconscious. Your reflective, compassionate, social and creative brain is what you have evolved to own – so choose to use it.
Before I get to the tools, I want to bring up a major caveat: compassion is about understanding the humanity of others – but when it comes to the inhumane, that factor always comes first. There are certain people out there that you cannot get inside the mind of – because they are dangerous and cannot be understood because they don’t have the same human feelings. This group of people includes psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists, and their brains are damaged in ways that make them incapable of regular human emotions – most commonly guilt and sympathy. These people are the ones who can commit atrocities like murder and rape. They are also the kinds of people who enjoy hurting others. Often what brings them pleasure is to gain power or control others: like a form of play similar to when a cat tortures a mouse.
This type of person has damage in the part of the brain tied to our ability to bond and connect with other humans, which forms at the earliest stages of childhood. However, often they develop the other parts of the brain that form in later stages, so they will be experts at manipulating others as well as mimicking the appropriate emotions they see are expected of them. It’s called “Parroting” because they repeat back to others what they see acted out as “normal” for a human– and because they are often intelligent, they will study others and portray personality traits that society rewards. Though it might appear they’re compassionate or remorseful, it’s all manipulation to get what they want – and often that’s power or control over others. People like this are capable of much worse evil than any regular human, because they don’t actually have the ability to relate to the feelings of other people: it gives them no pleasure to make others happy, and they don’t feel bad when others are hurt. They are incapable. And though they can act out what a therapist tells them they should feel, they are incurable – because they are fundamentally wired differently. Therefore, this type of person is very dangerous to anyone emotionally vulnerable, who can’t see them for what they are. So the reason I am warning you with this information is so you can approach compassion from an educated and healthy position. If you know someone who behaves with a lack of guilt, that’s an important thing to pay attention to – and if you are vulnerable to this person, keep a safe distance so that you are not manipulated into believing they are different than they are. The initial damage is not their fault, which sucks for them and humanity as a whole. So you can feel compassionate for them in that way – but from a self-loving distance. Never lose sight of the fact of who they are: not like you and incapable of understanding your feelings. And regardless of their initial damage, they’re still accountable: they have control over what they do, and an understanding of what is right and wrong.
This practice is about gaining understanding but only while protecting yourself from the damage within an individual. Sometimes that understanding will reveal that there’s no humanity to see through to. This is a terrifying upsetting topic but if you’re curious to understand more about how this works, it can actually make things less upsetting – because they make sense. You can check out an amazing book called, “The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog.” It’s by a child psychiatrist and an amazing human who changed the way the court system dealt with children. It’s a series of case studies of particular kinds of damage at different ages in childhood, how the brain develops to cope with it, and how that manifests in behavior. For me, it helped me make sense of the evil inside other humans. For this topic, what’s most relevant is something is missing inside their brain, and it happened when they were very young.
We must work hard to enhance compassion in ourselves while choosing to stay conscious – and in the face of even the worst intolerance, the pursuit of understanding can become our greatest tool. Because understanding why people hate is the same as defeating your own intolerance. It undoes it on both sides. It also helps to stay aware of the fact that you’re on the easy side of this equation – and come from that state of empowerment. Because to be stuck in a place of intolerance to oneself, is purgatory, and there’s nothing that feels worse than to know no one understands or cares how you feel. You likely know that the solution in an intolerant person is to have a desire to be compassionate. The same goes for you.
There’s a reason people are the way they are. There’s a clear definition, so when you’re offended by it, look it up! You might have found this episode for just that reason! I love the internet… Understanding is one of the greatest tools you will ever have in the face of something scary like hate and intolerance – understanding. It’s really what compassion is all about – assuming people are the way they are for a good reason, and attempting to approach the situation from that point.
I know the harder situations come when you cannot trace the path behind someone’s why. But trust that there is a root. If you cannot see it, know that it’s because it is that bad. There is that much pain involved – that it is incomprehensible to you.
This is a visualization to help you remember it. Imagine you’re looking at an old portrait of yourself – at a point in your life where you were petty and low. And now assume that this person is just like you – they were a gentle and loving human, and just like you during this time of your life, pain got in the way. We all went through a bad spell in our younger years. For me, it was the teenaged indifference that comes with an abandonment of self – which created a lack of concern for everything and everyone. When we hurt enough for long enough, we stop being able to care about others – so regardless of who this person is, they are tormented and in a worthless state of being. No, that’s not an excuse – but it is a way for you to see through to their humanity – something that makes them much more tolerable. If this person is acting full of rage or has shut down, get back into your own memory and try to understand a time when you felt similar. Relate in any way possible to them based on your own experiences. When did you feel the most hatred toward a stranger? Retrace an exact experience of feeling hate and indifference to others: what was it in you that created that feeling? Take it apart from the inside out. It likely has to do with a time you lost hope in yourself.
The key to being compassionate is to treat others as you would yourself. You know yourself but you don’t know how you would feel if you had lived the lifetime of this other person – so to release yourself from the pain of their anger, try putting yourself into their shoes.
Stop the Mosh-Pit
Imagine you’re both in a two-person mosh pit and you just step away – they can’t keep the violence going alone. Meaning, if you don’t receive their barbs, they can’t be delivered. Anger and hate is fed by the audience receiving the message. Once you change your form of communication and resume a compassionate role that seeks to hear the message a person has to say, the gunpowder leaves the topic and they are left with a choice to communicate or not. It’s not about yelling to be heard – which is usually where the most aggression comes in. When you receive them with love and calmness, they lose a reason to yell and the thought becomes reduced to what it is. When a person has hate gets feedback from others that tells them their feelings are invalid, they grow defensive and enraged by the fact that the other person can not understand their hate. So there’s also a likelihood that your non-acceptance of their beliefs makes them feel attacked. Alternately when you seek to understand why the person is so filled with hate, they feel confronted on a human level. Which transforms them from an expression into a person with an emotion.
What can be hard for most of us is accepting that a person has the feelings at all. I find that often the person doesn’t actually feel the way they are portraying – it’s just a flame of anger that has been fanned into a raging fire of hate. The core of it is simple and trivial when the heat is taken away – most likely fear of being found out as ignorant, or just an overall sense of unhappiness with life.
As a self-protective person, you might have an innate resistance to seek to understand where a toxic person is coming from. There is likely a part of you who struggles with that mission – because there is a fear of validating the acts. To engage with a sick and cruel person logically, is to honor it. Like seeking to understand a murderer is to treat them as human, and often, they are not. So instead – recognize the LACK of humanity within someone. Use the same tool to ground the overwhelming state of hate being expressed. If not for them – then just for yourself, as a way to make sense of the world.
There’s a strong possibility that if you have a family member who is remorseless when causing harm to you – that they are a sociopath. There are many in the world, acting out regular roles. So keep a safe distance and look at them as a clinical case, one separate from you – and separate from a human. If you accidentally engage with a sociopath – meaning, seek to discuss and understand them and their feelings, it allows their manipulative ego to flourish and grow more legitimized via lies, that usually result in blaming you. So keep your wits about you and always self-protect. If you’re not ready or capable of coming close, don’t risk it: sociopaths can be extremely damaging.
The Golden Rule
This is the basis of compassion as seen across most religions. Look at everyone as a mirror: treat them as you would like to be treated. Or, if it’s easier to remember: don’t treat others the way you would not want to be treated.
Lend Them a Cup of Sugar (AKA self-esteem)
A lot of people filled with hate and intolerance have low-self esteem. So it doesn’t cost you anything to add to theirs and push them in a positive direction. Self-esteem comes from two things: how we see ourselves, currently, and how think we should be, ideally.
So if the difference between those two is large – we have low self-esteem. If the difference is small, we are confident. A healthy amount of self-esteem enables us to act in our own best interests – where low self-esteem creates an anxious state of, “I’m stupid and unlovable.” In other words, it breeds intolerant beings with nothing to give.
Here are some ways to help someone build self-esteem:
- Listen to them. Give him or her your complete attention while they are speaking to you. This will let them know that their opinions matter and therefore, so do they.
- Include them in your healthy productive activities. Basically tether them to the world of functioning, positive people. It will help them to see they can affect things positively.
- Give them positive feedback. Let them know they are important to you – it will show them their own value.
- Show your care and concern. Imbue them with value based on how important they are in your life.
- Encourage them. Try to get your friend or relative to learn something new. Applaud successes, attempts, and even failed attempts.
- Relate to them. Share your own weaknesses and make it okay for them to be human. Relate to trials they struggle with so they feel less ashamed.
No one is right or wrong to feel the way they do. Sometimes we are just born with a lesser threshold for stress or we have experiences early on that make us feel insecure or lesser, deep down inside. And that is why a state of non-judgment is such a universal tool: it’s a map to reaching the gentle, loving human inside everyone.
This practice isn’t instant, because it’s an approach to life that becomes you. We all want change to happen overnight, but with practices of being – the effects are so incremental they can only be seen overtime. Just as cooking becomes innate as you do it everyday, so will compassion. It is a practice, and the change that results will almost be imperceptible. The reason to proceed anyway– is that this is a higher kind of goal. A cumulative one that leads to an enlightened life that will change the course of history for everyone you interact with, and I believe, the world. So be patient with yourself and with others, and push yourself – always a little bit harder. You must practice it all day everyday, as a consistent state of who you are.
With compassion, comes a heightened state of being, a calm happy balance that enhances your life. This is open to all of us – but we just don’t think about it, really. I hadn’t until a few days ago. We all know people like this – who are innately good and non-judgmental – who make everyone around them feel safe, confident and loved. It’s like they’re advanced souls – they seem to have been born that way. And what a carefree soul to embody! How intoxicating it is to be around people like this. I wish that for you, and I wish that for myself. So with that, let us all begin with this practice – of compassion, all day every day. And just like language eventually evolved into poetry, so will compassion evolve each of us into pure love– in the body of a human being.
To read more on the topic check out, Karen Armstrong’s “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life”
(Featured image via Shutterstock)