What Is Compersion?

Posted on in Healthy Living by Marie Thouin

Transforming Jealousy and Envy Into Joy

Imagine having no fear that another woman could take something away from you. Imagine loving yourself completely, and not having to compare yourself to others to see your own gifts and value. Imagine how each of your relationships would feel without any hint of competition, jealousy, or envy—just the goodness and the love.

Is this a serious proposition? If so, how would one possibly get there—or at least closer to this ideal?

While jealousy and envy are an unquestionable part of life, they can also be
powerful transformational tools. With our eyes open, we can acknowledge those emotions, understand why they are there, and bring compassion into the places where we feel shortchanged, left out, or threatened. Our heartfelt exploration of some of the most difficult human experiences can be one of the greatest catalysts for growth and healing.

One way to become masters of our jealousy and envy is to cultivate compersion—the ability to wholeheartedly participate in the happiness of others and feel sympathetic joy for them, even when their happiness does not involve or benefit us directly. I will dive in more deeply to the concept of compersion in a few moments, but first, it is important to explore what jealousy and envy are, and how they affect us.

Although jealousy and envy go hand-inhand, they are distinct emotions. Jealousy comes from the fear, real or imagined, that something we value could be taken away. Take the stereotypical example of a romantic blowup involving the suspicion or discovery of infidelity, or the discomfort we might feel when our partner flirts or dances with somebody else. Envy, on the other hand, is the bitter feeling we have toward a person who has something we want, but do not have—such as money, power, talent, good looks, status, a romantic relationship, etc. Envy is often camouflaged by other emotions: It’s a clenching of the jaw when we witness a colleague get the promotion we have been yearning for; a subtle tension when our attractive friend receives more attention than we do at the bar; a pit in our stomach when we say, “Congratulations on your marriage!”—but have not been on a date in a year. We might be happy for them at one level, but envy reminds us of what we lack by bringing pain into an otherwise joyful situation. Because of its insidious nature, envy is likely to be denied, repressed, and repackaged as judgment. Jealousy and envy might be distinct, but they both stem from the idea that more for you is less for me. Also, they both result in making us feel disconnected from, and sometimes suspicious of, other people.

Sunset Meditation. Photo by Elena Ray at Shakti Fest 2013 with Nandhi.
Sunset Meditation. Photo by Elena Ray at Shakti Fest 2013 with Nandhi.

While these are universal issues, jealousy and envy play a particularly pervasive role in keeping women divided. From a young age, we learn to assess our own personal success in comparison to other women. Who was the most attractive girl in school? The most popular? The most talented? Just as you most likely remember those girls, you probably know the unspoken pecking order in your current workplace and social circles. Everywhere we look, the media reinforces the message that all women are, like it or not, in a beauty and success contest where more for you is less for me.

The result? We disconnect ourselves from our unique sense of value. Our self-esteem and happiness fluctuate like the stock exchange, at the mercy of external appraisals. Even our dearest friends can intrinsically become our rivals, even if covertly so. Jealousy and envy are the invisible walls that keep us separate from one another, and prevent us from becoming fully empowered—individually and collectively.

How can jealousy and envy be transformed into compersion?

The good news is that many people have already given serious consideration to this question. For example, transpersonal psychologist Jorge Ferrer has suggested the cultivation of compersion as an antidote to jealousy and competition. He points to Buddhism as one of the main spiritual traditions to have brought forward this concept. Indeed, Buddhists have long considered sympathetic joy (referred to as mudita in Sanskrit) to be one of the four qualities of the enlightened person—the other three being loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and equanimity (upeksha). In their eyes, mudita remedies the illusory separateness between self and others and can therefore be a powerful vehicle on the path to liberation.

A second group who consider sympathetic joy an ideal are consensually non-monogamous individuals—a designation that comprises polyamorists, swingers, folks in open relationships, and others who engage in concurrent intimate relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved. These individuals take the unusual stance that jealousy should not rule their lives or relationship choices, and that selfless love can be cultivated in its place. For a consensually non-monogamous person, the experience of sympathetic joy for their partner when they intimately bond with someone else may be a source of pleasure, fulfillment, and connection—and it is something that can be cultivated. In fact, non-monogamists coined the word compersion in the early 1990s because they lacked an English word to designate their experience.

Just like the Buddhist experience of mudita, compersion can be cultivated in any context where jealousy or envy may arise—it is not restricted to intimate or romantic connections. Therefore, we can apply the lessons we learn in non-monogamous contexts to create more loving relationships and communities. Here are some of these lessons, inspired from my own research on compersion:

Make an ideological commitment. Take a personal stance about becoming a master of your jealousy and envy, rather than the other way around. A strong mental decision can go a long way in helping you stay the course when the road gets rough.

Validate, validate, validate. Do not be ashamed of your jealousy or envy: These are very normal emotions! Embrace and feel them with compassion. If possible, share your experience with someone you trust to be nonjudgmental: To be witnessed in this space will help soften the emotion as well as defuse the shame.

Understand what you are feeling and why. Use your jealousy and envy as giant flashlights to illuminate your deepest wounds and desires. Become a detective of your own emotional landscape: Where does the jealousy or envy arise from? Is it pointing to a painful trauma or wound, such as a fear of abandonment? What are your main jealousy or envy triggers? This information will help you become more intimate with yourself by letting you understand the sources of your discomfort more closely.

Turn competition into self-improvement. Competition can be used positively to fuel self-improvement. Use the clarity you are gaining about your jealousy or envy triggers as a motivational force to achieve the things you really want. What can you learn from some one you are jealous or envious of about how to fulfill your own needs and desires?

Bring love, generosity, and connection into the situation. While separateness breeds jealousy, connection breeds love and compersion. Create a sincere and intentional connection with the person you feel jealous or envious of; challenge yourself to connect with them personally, and to be generous with them. If you notice envy of a specific category of people, for example, “women who are more conventionally attractive than me,” pick someone who represents this group for you. If this is unattainable, offer an act of kindness to someone else instead, but with the same intentionality. It could be as simple as a small gift or compliment. This will shift your internal dynamic from being a victim to feeling empowered and generous in that space.

Mastering our jealousy and envy is not easy but it allows us to love more deeply and support one another in both our strengths and weaknesses—which ultimately makes all of us stronger. Compersion, or sympathetic joy, is the realization that more for you is more for me, because none of us are actually separate. It takes courage and perseverance to cultivate a radically loving life in this way, but in choosing to take those steps we hold the power to create a brighter reality for ourselves and others.

Marie Thouin is a local doctoral candidate at CIIS, where she conducts research on compersion in consensually non-monogamous relationships. Her work was featured in Elle magazine. She is also a dating coach, working with individuals of all genders and sexual/relationship orientations longing for richer and more enjoyable intimate lives. WhatIsCompersion.com.

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