Why I Hate Cultivating Compersion
Compersion means “vicarious joy” — or, joy on the behalf of others. In polyamorous communities, it generally means, feeling joy when one of your partners is finding sexual or romantic joy with a partner who isn’t you.
And, I fucking hate the way we talk about it.
Funny enough, I usually hate it on the behalf of others, because I’m rarely in relationships long enough for things like “compersion” to become relevant to my own situation. But, to encapsulate just what I hate so much about the ideology of compersion, I remember once talking with a friend who had like, left one of his girlfriends at a festival to have a date with a hot young woman. Afterward, when dealing with how upset his girlfriend was, he fumed to me “why can’t she just have compersion for me?”
I was just like, Dear God, let me die alone before I ever date someone who demands compersion of me in my hour of pain.
Anyway, despite this couple’s troubles, at least they seemed to know compersion wasn’t realistically on the table for them in the near future. It’s slightly more annoying if people want to humblebrag about how much compersion they have, which to be fair is kind of rare — but the real toxic ideology around compersion, IMO, is the idea that we should cultivate compersion.
Something I should confess, before we go on further, is that I’m actually against most kinds of cultivation practice. I don’t like doing metta practice in Buddhism, I don’t believe in trying to cultivate a “positive outlook”, and I will burn any gratitude journal that crosses my path.
And, I’m against all these things for similar reasons, but I’m going to break down specifically why I hate compersion and I will leave it as an exercise to the reader as to figure out if they think the other practices suck as well.
So, I was recently dumped — and I’m sure you’re wondering “who would ever dump a bright ray of sunshine such as yourself?” and yes, you’re right, it is weird — but, as part of my breakup process, I (like I always do) mentally dive into all the things I fucked up. Not in a depressing way — but in a hopeful way, like “if I figure this out, maybe I won’t fuck it up again.”
And… to give you shortened version of my introspection, I’m dealing with a lot of shame. I’ll probably have a few more posts on that specifically down the line, but basically in relationships I have a process that goes like this:
- Feel shame
- Deny to myself I’m feeling shame, and get some level of frustrated/angry
- Blame my partner and tell them everything that’s wrong with them
Now, before you’re like “God, Emma, you’re a horrible person” like… ok, maybe, but I also think a lot of people do this. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people did some version of it. However, it is very hard to become aware of feeling shame, so most people don’t know when they’re in step 1. Shame is so painful we usually immediately channel it into another emotion, like anger, and once this happens, we tend build up an unshakable narrative about how wrong the other person is.
So, what most people see, is that their partner fucked them over. When most of us think “if only our partner hadn’t done this, or done that everything would have been fine” we genuinely believe it. Have you noticed how everyone basically feels screwed over by their ex, and how rare it is that someone says “yeah, I really screwed the pooch that time?” Personally, I believe part of that is because relationships ending bring up shame, and the pipeline from shame to blame is so seamless that most of us don’t notice when it’s happening.
Ultimately, instead of feeling the emotion shame, we end up clinging to these blame narratives, so we feel anger instead — but feeling that anger often feels better than feeling shame so we’re not really motivated to uncover any deeper reason behind the anger.
Or, phrased another way — think back on your last relationship that didn’t pan out; think about the ways you fucked up, vs the ways your partner fucked up. Who fucked up more, was it you or your partner? If you’re like most of us, you probably are much more aware of the ways your partner fucked up than the ways you fucked up. Personally, I think this is shame avoidance in action. Even if your partner was genuinely, objectively terrible — like a rapist or something — there are still questions around your own agency that need to be answered, like “why did I stay with someone who raped me?” (And, before anyone gets too mad at me, I have dated someone who raped me, I have asked myself this exact question. The short version of my answer is, my inability to deal with my own, deep loneliness led me to not ending a relationship that was bad for me — but it took me a long time to see how self destructive my loneliness was, because I was so ashamed of feeling lonely.)
When I look around at the world, we live in a really shame inducing society — and especially when it comes to dating, we pour so much shame onto people. Because, ultimately, social status and shame are inversely linked, where things that cause you to have lower social status also cause you to have more shame.
So, in traditional society, we tend to get social status from being in a relationship, or being married, and if our partner is conventionally attractive or successful, then we will get more social status. Conversely, we feel shame about things that deny us social status, so people will often have shame around their physical appearance, being single, their income, or whatever.
Now, a lot of poly communities like to think they’re above such bourgeoisie considerations, but poly has social hierarchies as well. Again, poly people often get social status from dating attractive or successful people, marriage is a bit of a mixed blessing, cuz while people may get some of the social status from default society, they may also get looked down on by poly people for being too hierarchical. Then, another element of poly that we often dismiss, is people often get social status for being in more relationships, or by finding it easier to get into relationships than people who have fewer, or who struggle.
So, where’s the shame? The inverse of all that. We feel shame when we feel unattractive, if we have too few partners, if we’re not successful, if our partners aren’t attractive enough of successful enough, etc. Not only that, often people in poly relationships are dealing with the shame of being rejected by larger society as well, all of which to say is, there is often a lot of shame getting tossed around, much of which is unconscious, that leads to immense amounts of pain when not dealt with effectively.
So now, if we go back to compersion — if we try to cultivate compersion when we haven’t dealt with our shame… it’s going to be an absolute fucking disaster. I won’t use a real example for this, because I’ve learned it’s not good to blog about breakups until some time has passed, and I don’t want to talk about shame I’ve observed in others because it’s such a sensitive topic.
Rather, I will take you through my poly-shame-nightmare, if I’d been the woman dating the guy in the festival from the example above. Like, let’s say I was with a partner at a festival and I thought I was going to spend some time with him, but instead of spending time with *me* he wanted to go out with a beautiful young woman, who was like, a decade younger than me. Let’s say, on top of that, she was like, some brilliant mathematician or something, and on top of that she was this really sweet, sexually submissive person who was really game to do whatever he wanted in bed.
I would absolutely freak out — that would be so hard for me to deal with, because a) I have shame about my age, b) I can get triggered into shame about my appearance if pushed enough, c) I generally feel confident in my intelligence, but can feel shame that I lack the markers of intelligence (like a PhD or something) d) I have shame that I’m kind of bitchy, e) I have shame that I am not sexually submissive and this seems to be what many people (men) want of me.
Now, let’s say instead of facing any of that, I sat there trying to be happy for my partner, trying to “let go” of my negative feelings or whatever. I mean, Jesus, it would be an emotional bloodbath, because every time I tried to think a positive thought I would get smacked with a big old shame feeling which I would likely immediately turn to anger and blame. So like, 150% chance in a situation like that, if I tried to compersion my way into acceptance, I would end up picking a huge fight with my partner after his date.
Maybe I would say something like this “Why you have to date girls half your age? Are you like, emotionally stunted or something?”
Now, this is super likely to trigger his shame, and he’ll get defensive/angry, so we’ll get something like “You’re just jealous that I’m not spending time with you; you have to learn to deal with your feelings, it’s not my job to manage your irrational jealousy.”
Which, would trigger my shame, I’d blame him again, and the cycle would continue and deepen. And, you’ll notice the element in my fictional argument that I think is usually present in real arguments too is the underlying statement “I am not willing to accept you as you are.”
I am not willing to accept you as someone attracted to younger women
I am not willing to accept you as someone who experiences jealousy
And, this is it really — this is the heart of it. So often, we are driven to reject others because we reject ourselves first due to our shame. It is hard for fictional me to deal with men who are attracted to younger women because I have shame about my own age, and also, because I’m ashamed that I’m insecure about my age. It is harder for my fictional partner to deal with a jealous partner likely because he has some degree of shame about triggering pain in his partners. And, we don’t teach people how to deal with this; like, I’ve read a bunch of poly shit, and while they often talk about jealousy, there is not much advice for dealing with the kind of interpersonal shame that is likely to come up around dating multiple people in a society that idealizes monogamy. It is an *epic* omission, IMO.
Like, all the conventional shames of society, about physical appearance, success, ability to date easily, etc. these are all amplified in poly situations, because you have a literal “other” with whom to compare yourself to. And then, we add to this shame when we pile in compersion; and perhaps this really gets at why I hate the cultivation of it so much.
The expectation of compersion shames people who are currently feeling so much shame they’re not able to be happy for their partners. It makes the situation worse. It *literally* pours fuel on the shame fire, by adding shame to an already shame saturated situation.
And, this is generally what I dislike about cultivation practice in the abstract; I’m not saying it never serves a purpose, but often, I think often cultivation practice increases personal shame around not having the trait we are desiring to cultivate. And shame is just so toxic and so unconscious that it can really throw a wrench in whatever else we’re trying to do.
Sadly, we don’t have many great resources about dealing with shame — Brené Brown is pretty good, you could look her up. I can share with you what I do, which is a) admit to myself that I’m feeling shame, b) construct a narrative about why it’s reasonable to have shame, c) talk to people who will be nice to me about it. So, in the previous example, I might say “it’s reasonable to have shame about aging; we live in a society that is really hard on women about their age.” I might then seek out other female friends to share this insecurity with, etc.
Another key element (which I’m working on) is it’s really important to not blame people when you are feeling shame. Or, rather, it’s really important to not blame people… if you want to stay in connection with them. On the flip side… it is very culturally normative to blame people if you’re feeling shame, and it’s a totally reasonable thing to do if you haven’t learned any other tools for dealing with shame (or anger, since shame will often present as anger.) Personally, I’m thinking about getting back in to Non Violent Communication as a way of dealing with this, because they very directly talk about learning how to communicate without using blame, but I can’t speak to how well this works since it’s kind of a recent issue for me.
The thing that’s kind of mind-blowing about the whole thing though, is if you start to see shame as a major cultural problem (as I do) you start to also see these ways that we keep doubling down on shame. In fact, I think I view this as one of the major divides between the left and the right at the moment, while the left views itself as the “kind” and “compassionate” side, the left is also completely unaware about how many of the “nice” things they do are actually shame inducing. I mean, it’s a difficult problem; how do we create progress without admitting something is wrong, but how do we call out something as being wrong without generating shame? Truthfully, I’m not completely sure, but I think it’s something we need to grapple with more openly.