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Finding Compassion for Those who Have Harmed Us

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Trigger warning: Domestic Violence

One of the most deeply held values in Buddhism is compassion. It is believed that through compassion and wisdom one can find enlightenment.

In the words of the Dali Lama,

"According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It's not passive — it's not empathy alone — but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and lovingkindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is lovingkindness)."

Compassion caves in our hearts, it opens us up, and it sets us free from all of the suffering of the world. It is understanding that everyone suffers, even those who do harm to others. All are worthy of our compassion, because all beings are made of the same stuff. We are all the same on a spiritual level.

We are all pieces of the universe, we are all beautiful souls, we are all on this journey together walking each other home.

Understanding those who harm us

Some people in this world do enormous harm. People who start wars for example. Or those who persecute other people. Serial killers. Domestic abusers. So how do we learn to have compassion for them? How do we see that their souls are the same as ours?

Since I was abused, this has been a struggle for me on a personal level, to forgive the people who have harmed me. They tell you in therapy to forgive for yourself, so that you can let go of the past. I did learn to forgive myself, and to realize that the abuse wasn't my fault. But I wasn't ready to forgive my abusers. I didn't think it was necessary for healing.

I still don't think that forgiveness is necessary for healing. For a while, the simple act of not forgiving made me strong. It made me say no and set boundaries.

But in order to cultivate a deeper level of compassion within myself, I do need to forgive. I started with accepting that they hated me to be able to move on. I think the problem is that so often abuse is tied up with supposed love. People say they love you then they hurt you. So we have this mistaken idea of what love actually is, and what it isn't.

Hurting someone isn't love. It is either hate or apathy.

Understanding that first allowed me to move on. It allowed me to accept that my abusers hated me, that they never loved me, and that I didn't need to go on expecting them to love me someday if I was good enough. They were never going to love me, no matter what I did. It wasn't about me.

Read that again. It wasn't about me. Abuse isn't about the victim, it is about the abuser. It is something going on inside of them that isn't right. Some broken piece in them that causes lack of empathy for others. They didn't hurt you because you did something wrong, or because you deserved it, they hurt you because they aren't right inside.

My mom had a rotten childhood. Worse than mine. I always knew that although she rarely talked about it. All the stories that I heard were bad. I can't think of one good story about my mom's childhood. I'm sure she had trauma too. I know she had anxiety.

Maybe being alone with a new baby while my dad was working all the time was hard for her. She left me alone and let me cry so she could get things done. So she told my partner.

She didn't know how to be a mother. Her mother died young. Her dad left her on her own. She didn't have a template for good parenting from any of the stepmothers who paraded in and out of her life. She was a product of what had happened to her in her life.

My dad was no better in terms of his childhood. He grew up in an abusive home too.

Hurt people hurt people.

Most people who are abused don't go on to abuse others. In fact, you are more likely to get into another abusive relationship as an adult if you were abused as a child than to become an abuser yourself.

However, according to Very Well Mind,

Similarly, by becoming an abuser, someone who has been abused can play the role of the more powerful person in the relationship in an attempt to overcome the powerlessness they felt. Unfortunately, this is not effective, and they may repeatedly dominate others in a futile attempt to get over the weakness they experienced.

This perpetuates the cycle of abuse onto the next generation. So, we are left with broken people parenting others, and creating more broken people.

The role of compassion

Compassion is opening your heart to the suffering of others, and actively wanting them to heal. Once we realize that abusers are deeply broken people, no matter how evil they may seem to those of us who were abused, we can have a space for compassion for them.

When we want them to heal their own scars, then we allow room in our own hearts for forgiveness for what they did to us. It allows us to see that we weren't the only ones who were suffering.

As children, we were powerless. But as adults we were not. We can take our power back and become strong people in our own right. We can be more than our circumstances have given us.

When we take time to heal, truly heal, only then is there room for us to have compassion. As long as we have unhealed wounds ourselves this isn't possible. At least it wasn't possible for me. I had to truly heal and let go of the past to be able to have compassion for my abusers.

In order to find compassion for others who have wronged us, we can practice meditation and other mindfulness practices. Loving-kindness meditation can be especially useful for this.

According to Learn Religions,

The suggested method for tonglen meditation varies from teacher to teacher, but it usually is a breath-based meditation in which the meditator visualizes taking in the pain and suffering of all other beings on each inhalation, and giving away our love, compassion, and joy to all suffering beings with each exhalation. When practiced with complete sincerity, it quickly becomes a profound experience, as the sensation is not one of symbolic visualization at all, but of literally transforming pain and suffering. A practitioner becomes aware of tapping into an endless well of love and compassion that is available not only to others but to ourselves. It is, therefore, a very good meditation to practice during times when you are most vulnerable yourself. Healing others also heals self, and the boundaries between self and other are seen for what they are—non-existent.

As we realize that we are all pieces of one great tapestry, that we are all one at our deepest level, we can learn to have compassion for anyone. But it begins with having compassion for yourself.

My wish for you

I hope that you will be able to find healing and peace inside yourself. I hope that you will be able to feel strong and brave again, instead of feeling broken from what has happened to you. I hope that you can learn to look forward instead of back, and that you will learn to have love and compassion for yourself.

I wish for you that you would be able to reach a healed place inside yourself where you are able to forgive those who have wronged you and instead find compassion for them.

Remember, forgiveness isn't necessary for healing.

I think the people who say that actually have it backwards. I think that healing is necessary for forgiveness. Otherwise, you are just going to allow someone to hurt you again.

Also remember, you can have forgiveness and compassion for someone and still not want to have them in your life. It is one thing to know that cosmically we are all made up of the same beautiful light energy, and another to know that some people aren't capable of manifesting that in this lifetime.

You can show someone love and compassion and still let them go. You don't have to allow people to hurt you again, you are allowed to have boundaries for yourself and say no. That is critical for being able to move on from abuse.

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