Compersion IS Empathy: Aiming for Joy

a person blowing bubbles
Image by Daniil Ulanov / CC BY

Compersion is Empathy

When you get down to it, compersion (i.e., delight in the happiness of others) is just a very specific kind of empathy, one that runs counter to our cultural expectations.

Now, I’m not trying to take away all the fun words. I love neologisms as much as the next person. Arguably more.

I still think that compersion is a lovely word and a handy one for explaining a phenomenon that’s not widely understood outside of non-monogamy, delighting in a partner’s other relationships.

The upside of realizing it’s a form of empathy though is that empathy has been widely studied, and there’s a much larger collective body of knowledge about empathy in humans than compersion.

This is helpful since it gives us a bigger toolset to work with.

It may take a little work to see compersion as a form of empathy as the term is more frequently used to relate to empathy for painful states, but empathy is the ability to understand and feel the feelings of another — good, bad, or somewhere in between.

It turns out you really can “catch feels.” It’s a phenomenon called social contagion and it’s been widely studied.

So if we’re going to pick up other people’s emotions anyway, let’s just go ahead and aim for joy.

See Your Own Success in Theirs

If you can consider a person’s success also your success, then it’s a lot easier to feel happy for someone. Consider when a professional sports team wins a championship. We didn’t personally score any points. But fans are happy nonetheless.

It’s when we consider loved ones distinctly separate and isolated from us that we can get into those zero sum patterns of competitiveness.

This doesn’t mean you blur your boundaries together into a big smear of codependence.

And it doesn’t mean that you should verbally let them know every time they have something good happen to them exactly what your contribution was.  (Don’t make the same mistake I did, people reallllly don’t like it.)

But think on it privately. Walk yourself through the steps. Celebrate.

When your partner is excited about their relationship with someone else, it doesn’t have to take anything away from you. It can be your excitement, too. It can be a success you share.

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Empathy for negative emotions has been widely studied. However, empathy for positive emotions is a much newer field, although research exists.  While it’s an emerging field, it is one that has great potential not only for romantic relationships, but for society.

In fractured times, the more we can stay connected and engaged with those we love, those who want us, those who need us, the better.

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