I often tell people that a sign of an emotionally abusive family or relationship is that people show remorse for the harm they caused, but not compassion.
I realized a few days ago that there’s a problem with me saying this. The problem is people don’t know the difference between remorse and compassion.
Alright. Let’s say I harmed you. What does remorse look like?
Remorse focuses on how bad I feel because of the harm I caused. So remorse devalues me. I devalue myself by focusing on how bad I feel. And when I feel devalued, I am more likely to be abusive. Abuse happens because “I feel bad and it’s your fault”. The worse I feel about myself, the more likely I am to be abusive.
Abusive people usually have low self-esteem (although they might present a surface-level narcissistic bravado), often suffer from anxiety (because they are trying to control what cannot be controlled) and often believe that anyone with reasonable self-esteem is selfish (because they have a low opinion of their own self.)
Alright. Let’s say again, that I harmed you. What does compassion look like?
Compassion is focused on how you, the person I hurt, feel. Since I am not focused on myself at all, but on you, I do not feel any worse about myself. Compassion is also focused on what I am going to do to repair the hurt, and prevent the hurt from happening again. Since taking action to solve a problem causes me to feel better about myself, focusing on what I am going to do improves my self-esteem.
Compassionate people have improving self-esteem even though they are focused on other people. Compassionate people have lessening anxiety because they focus on understanding others instead of trying to control them. Compassionate people also have less anxiety because they focus on what they can control–their own actions.
Never forget that a person who devalues themselves is much more likely to become abusive than a person who values themselves. Remember that the fundamental basis of all abuse is: “I feel bad and it’s your fault.” The more someone focuses on how bad they feel for hurting you, the more likely they are to hurt you again.
I want to emphasize that sentence.
The more someone focuses on how bad they feel for hurting you, the more likely they are to hurt you again.
For anyone who grew up in abusive families, one of the primary problems you have to face is that you’ve been taught to think that you SHOULD show remorse when you’ve done something wrong. You’ve been taught that you SHOULD focus on how bad you feel about what you’ve done. This is how shame, guilt and anxiety operate.
When you’ve done something wrong, you should not focus on how you feel at all! You should focus on what you need to do to repair the harm. You should focus on understanding how the person you hurt feels and thinks. You should focus on what you will do differently next time.
(Oh and yes, when someone demands remorse from you instead of compassion, they are the one being abusive. They just want you to submit.)