2 July 2009

From Guilt to Compersion

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Abandoned industrial building on Washington Ave. in Kingston, NY. I don’t think it was the scene of a fire, unless someone installed a new telephone in the building after it burned down.

Any definition of compersion that you read will tell you that it’s the opposite of jealousy. That is useful, but it doesn’t tell you how to get there. I have another idea, which is that it’s the opposite of guilt. Of course it’s a little crude to define something by its supposedly opposing force, but this adjustment may help orient the concept in a way that makes it more accessible.

I’ll start with an example. Let’s say I am with a lover and our agreement includes her having the freedom to explore sexually and emotionally with whomever she chooses. I will handle that two ways. The first by having the confidence that she wants me in her life; that what I have to offer, she cannot find anywhere else. In part, compersion is based on trust, and it’s based on having a strong relationship to someone. To a meaningful degree, compersion is based on self-confidence.

Second, more basic, is that I love her free. I love her capacity to make choices, to explore her desires and to give herself what she wants. I’m willing to hold the space for this as a relationship partner. It helps that I’m capable of being deeply turned on not only by what she does but also by who she is.

That is compersion: recognizing intuitively that she defines who she is, and that if I actually love her, that’s going to feel good. Well, it will if I’m feeling balanced and have some basic needs met, so I have incentive to do that.

Looked at one way, I am giving her the freedom to not feel guilty about her emotional and erotic feelings. The way I am doing that is not by turning the other direction; not by tolerating her; but by appreciating and being turned on by who she is and what she does. It’s not my intellectual ‘consent’ that has the ability to help her unhook any potential guilt she might feel by having a life outside the relationsihp; it’s my soul-level, intuitive and emotional response to her existence and her experiences that actually assert her freedom.

Most people who would dare in some way to explore emotionally or sexually outside their primary partnership – that is, who cross the line, in the words of Mark Sanford – will feel guilty about what they’ve done, no matter how right it felt at the time. And this is true even of many who have the consent of their partners.

Guilt is a complex emotion, and in Gestalt terms it boils down to resentment at feeling powerless and controlled, which is directed at oneself when it’s really about rage at someone else. Said another way, it’s resentment (a form of anger) turned against itself.

We all feel guilt. The bigger problem is that most of the time our relationships have guilt as one of their most tangibly exchanged emotional mediums. We think it’s normal and we think it’s a healthy or at least practical way to govern our emotional interactions with others. It is neither; it’s like wrapping one another in barbed wire, holding onto the end of one another’s threads.

It is probably easier to release your partner from any obligation of guilt toward you than it is for you to ask them to release you. That does not necessarily set them free; but it does open the way. You can release yourself as the one capable of compersion. When we build relationships and interpersonal communities that are based on allowing one another the space to be who we are, that is compersion.

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