Adversity Breeds Compassion…And Contempt

Adversity Breeds Compassion...And Contempt

Fascinating article from the New York Times. It’s not about dating, per se, but it’s about how people act, which is easily applicable to relationships.

According to David DeSteno, writing in “Emotion”:

“Our intuition was that surviving hardships in life would lead people to become more generous, kind and supportive. After all, if you’ve lived through dire straits, you’re all too familiar with the pain and challenges involved. You can more readily adopt the perspective of someone in distress — you can feel his pain — and thus are more likely to lend a hand.”

That makes sense to me. I had anxiety and depression issues in my 20’s. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I’m extremely sensitive to mental illness and the stigmas around it. I wouldn’t wish anxiety and depression on my worst enemy. And, sure enough, that’s what the studies showed.

“Those who had faced increasingly severe adversities in life — loss of a loved one at an early age, threats of violence or the consequences of a natural disaster — were more likely to empathize with others in distress, and, as a result, feel more compassion for them. And of utmost importance, the more compassion they felt, the more money they donated (in the first study) or the more time they devoted to helping the other complete his work (in the second).”

But if that’s all that the study showed, I wouldn’t be sharing it with you today. What makes the above finding even more interesting is this contradictory information:

I wouldn’t wish anxiety and depression on my worst enemy.

“In an article recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the Kellogg School of Management professor Loran Nordgren and colleagues found that the human mind has a bit of a perverse glitch when it comes to remembering its own past hardships: It regularly makes them appear to be less distressing than they actually were.

As a result of this glitch, reflecting on your own past experience with a specific misfortune will very likely cause you to underappreciate just how trying that exact challenge can be for someone else (or was, in fact, for you at the time). You overcame it, you think; so should he. The result? You lack compassion.”

Strangely, this makes sense, too. You see a lot of good hearted people telling poor people and minorities that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and so should they. Never mind that the circumstances may be completely different for underprivileged Hispanics in East LA; the presumption is that if my Russian ancestors who came thru Ellis Island persevered and assimilated, so should Mexicans.

DeSteno summarizes: “Living through hardship doesn’t either warm hearts or harden them; it does both. Having known suffering in life usually heightens the compassion we feel for others, except when the suffering involves specific painful events that we know all too well. Here, familiarity really does breed contempt.”

Your thoughts, below, are greatly appreciated.

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  1. 1

    Interesting. As an empathetic and compassionate person, I feel like I became that way in my late teens / early twenties probably due to the fact that I experienced the loss (death) of two close loved ones, seeing my brother hospitalized with a life threatening illness, and some of my own personal struggles. I do think it makes a difference. Suffering seems to bring that out in most of us. Friends my own age seemed to lack those qualities until they eventually went through their own challenges.

    I also think it can be a double edged sword, though. When I met my ex-husband, he was quick to tell me how his ex-wife was this horrible shrew that had made his life miserable, and then she dumped him and somehow managed to keep him from seeing his child. Well, the combination of naivety (in my early 20’s at the time) and empathy, I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I think it forged a connection (for me) that may not have been there otherwise. I took on all his problems, thinking that he just needed a good, kind woman who would stand by him. I encouraged him to fight for joint custody and stood by his side as we went through years of expensive court battles. (We had married by this time).

    In retrospect, I now see that his ex-wife was not the wicked witch he made her out to be and that she had valid concerns regarding his ability to properly care for their child.

    All that to say, I really feel being able to empathize with others is a wonderful and valuable quality as long as it is used on those people who are trustworthy. Don’t waste it on those that don’t deserve it because unfortunately, there are people who will take advantage of your good heart.

  2. 2

    Yes, kk.  I totally agree with you.  It took three breakups over four years and nearly 18 months now for me to conclude that my good hearted, compassionate and empathic nature was simply taken advantage of. I have learned in applying Evan’s techniques to weed out the users and abusers.

    I kind of started feeling concerned that perhaps I set the bar too high after a couple dozen dates this last year and of the few I saw 2-4 times, I was cutting them loose when I got a whiff of utter mysogeny.  Very common in my dating pool age range of 50-60.

    On a bright note, I recently met a fella that has met and exceeds my high bar on every level.  It’s taken some time to assure myself that he is not only doing the right things in developing a relationship with me, but also walking the talk in his care and concern for friends, family, coworkers, patients, etc. And talks about what type of charitable work he would like to do when he retires.


  3. 3
    Ben Iyyar

    Suffering and outrage do not make a person kinder, more generous, and forgiving, it just makes a person mean, or it destroys them, ask a divorcee who went through years of trouble until they got a divorce.  The anger will amaze you!

    1. 3.1


      I don’t know if you’re speaking of yourself or someone else, but if you’re familiar with the stages of grief, anger is one of them.

      I think different types of suffering can cause someone to get stuck in the anger stage longer than other types of suffering. Not to say that one is worse than the other, but for some reason when divorce is due to years of infidelity or abuse, it is particularly difficult to swallow, because the person you loved and trusted is the person causing your pain. In the death of a loved one, for example, usually no one is to blame, unless they were murdered or something, and I think you would see extended anger too in a lot of people. So there is a difference, I believe, when someone is the cause, especially if it’s the person you once trusted most in the world.

    2. 3.2

      Ben,  I was in a relationship for half my life that most people in my shoes would have held hatred for this person.  It was a very abusive relationship and I was cheated on with almost as many people as i have fingers.  What did this leave me with?  It left me One Strong Person.  I do not hold hatred in my heart for anyone in this World.  Because once you find a reason to hate, there will always be just one more.  It is like a cancer that takes over your heart and soul.  Pain is our friend.  No matter how hard that is to accept or embrace.  When you want to get physically strong, you go to the gym.  When you want to get Spiritually strong, you get your butt kicked in Life.  Yes, i feel hurt and pain like all the rest of the world, but it’s what i did about it that made all the difference.  Recently, i just thanked my ex for all that he had taught me.  Because where there is hardship and pain, that is where Integrity is born.  You don’t know what you’re really MADE OF or CAPABLE OF until you are pushed to your outer limits.  So either you are going to soar high and fly from it all or you are going to crash and burn.  The choice is ours.  I set myself free.  And so can anyone else who wants to take their pain and use it to guide them to something better.  I am a much stronger better person for all i have gone through.  If i can forgive this person, i can forgive anyone.  Your worst enemy, can be your greatest teacher in Life.  It’s all what you choose.  If you alter your vision,  it will alter you Life.  Don’t let anger destroy you.  Rise up to it, and become your best self.

  4. 4

    Strangely enough, I think this is true that going through adversity can breed both compassion and contempt.  Following up on that immigrant example, I would actually never say that my family pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, so every other minority should do the same.  We came to the United States with substantial financial help and resources from my grandparents and other family members.  In fact, my grandparents purchased our first home for us.  I’m sure those other so-called “overnight” successful immigrants might have also relied on similar resources to help them get started, which not every minority or poor person will have.

    In terms of dating, I admit my adversity has made me both more and less compassionate at times, although I try to be more compassionate.  After all of the bad dates I went through before meeting my boyfriend, sometimes I really do empathize with a lot of the dating frustrations of people who are still looking.  However, at other times, I admit I’ve done that same thing of underestimating their challenges–thinking that hey, if I can overcome all my challenges to find a partner (i.e. being in my mid-30s and living in a suburban town), so should anyone.  One time I tried to cheer up a single friend by saying that come on, if I could find my boyfriend at age 35, surely she should easily be able to find one since she’s younger.  That’s when she gave me a weird look and said yeah, it’s true that I’m older, but I’m also thin–so I don’t appreciate her dating challenges in being a heavier-set woman (which is true.  Since I’ve never been a heavier woman, I don’t know what that’s like).  So in my case, adversity really has done both for me.


  5. 5

    I think that suffering in the childhood changes personality. You can grow to become very successsful, but you will punish people around you for sufferings in your early years.

    1. 5.1

      @Cherry: I agree with you 100%. This has been my experience dating men within my age range (50-60ish).

  6. 6

    ​I think a lack of empathy and compassion can also stem from attaching so much meaning to past events that didn’t go well (like when you did exhibit these qualities) that you do everything in your power to avoid those types of situations in the future.  I was dating someone who was so haunted by not wanting a repeat performance of bad relationships that he developed a system of rationalizations to avoid empathizing with or even acknowledging my point of view or feelings.  For example, he hated the feeling of pressure and responsibility to not disappoint or cause someone unhappiness.  For him this translated into compartmentalizing me in his life.  I seemed to exist in his life only in the ways that couldn’t potentially make him feel those negative feelings.  So in some sense, the memories of tough times were magnified, and he conditioned himself to associate similar situations with the “likely” outcome of misery. This meant that any hint that a new situation (like trying to agree how much time we spent together) could be linked to a painful memory, he would automatically shut down and disengage.  He then got so used to creating barriers to insulate himself, thinking things like empathy and compassion could “manipulate” him into changing his behavior in a way that would ultimately make him unhappy.  Needless to say, it wasn’t sustainable. 

  7. 7

    A friend sent this article to me after a conversation we had about this topic a couple of weeks back.

    This topic is really interesting and relevant to me, as I seem to get involved with men who are quite damaged from their past trauma.  The last man I was getting serious with had many similar life events to me, and we have both been divorced for about 4 years.  Our divorces were both nasty and awful, but we only focused on his feelings and aftermath.  Also, whenever I did something that reminded him of his ex-wife, it was a huge problem (and we are talking about behaviors that are just inherent in most women….getting chilly outside on a cool night, etc).  When I did attempt to discuss my past, he glossed over it fairly quickly and brought the conversation right back to him.  Sigh.  I thought it would serve as sort of a trauma bonding.

    This seems to be a common dynamic in my budding relationships.  I am empathetic to their feelings from the past, but I don’t get that empathy reciprocated.  Not cool.  I need it to be about me at least some of the time.

    And, it raises a huge red flag when a man who has been divorced for a few years speaks of his ex with vivid contempt.  I rarely think or speak of my ex, and I am completely indifferent to him.

    1. 7.1


      I just wanted to comment on a couple of things you said.

      “I seem to get involved with men who are quite damaged from their past trauma”. And… “This seems to be a common dynamic in my budding relationships”.

      I was married for almost 15 years. It ended because of my husband’s double life. When we first separated, I was really freaked out because 1) I’ve always considered myself a pretty good judge of character and I was so far off it wasn’t funny and 2) After hearing for years, you attract what you are, I was concerned and perplexed. The thought was what in the world could be so wrong with me that I would attract THAT into my life.

      Well, I see it differently now. 1) There are people who are really skilled liars and no matter how good you are at seeing through the BS, there are some people who can pull the wool over your eyes and 2) It had nothing to do with me or what I attract. HE chose me. HE chose deceit. I was unaware. In another post, Evan said it’s not about who you attract, it’s about who you accept. I agree with this over the old you attract what you are. Even still, in my case, what I thought I was accepting, over what I actually accepted were two totally different things.

      I’m just trying to say that this isn’t about who you are. There isn’t anything wrong with you. You just “accepted” the wrong men into your life. And thank goodness you found out early on, that these guys WEREN’T acceptable for you long term.

      I was watching a comedian and he said: If you’re over 35 or 40, and you’re still here… Let me just say you’re f-ed up. I mean how many heartbreaks have you had? Been cheated on? Screwed over? That f’s you up. We’re all f-ed up.

      Doesn’t sound funny but hearing him say it, it was pretty funny. And what makes it funny to me, is that there’s some truth in it. So even though you’ve got it together (you said you’re indifferent to your ex and that equals “over it” to me), we’re gonna come across a lot of damaged guys before we find a healthy one.



  8. 8
    Karmic Equation

    I think the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” — in this context — is necessary to build a healthy individual…and by extension, a healthy society.

    A person who has overcome adversity and is contemptuous of the person who does not overcome that same adversity helps to moderate, or prevent, in other words, behaviors/perceptions that could otherwise lead to extremism.

    For example, I believe the MGTOW movement is the result of over-empathy for the same adversity.

    The MGTOW movement is populated with men who could not get the women they wanted or couldn’t keep the women they had. And in the MGTOW movement, these men found like-minded men who empathized with their plight.

    And these men have no idea (or the wrong ideas as demonstrated by the Obsidians and McLovins of the world), of how to get the woman. So the MGTOW’s over-empathy for each other’s shared plight blew dating and relationship issues out of of all proportion to reality: Women are evil. We’re only out for a man’s wallet. We give sex away to some men, but not others, so we’re whores who are fickle and not to be trusted. Yada yada.

    And when you have the voice of reason, like Evan’s, like Tom10’s, like Adrian’s, who say tell those men that they can overcome those issues by changing their perspectives or attitudes, those voices are mocked or dismissed.

    That is the price that is paid when there is over-empathy, instead of contempt, for the people who refuse to do the work necessary to solve a solveable problem.

    IMHO, contempt serves the useful purpose of moderating extremist thinking.

    1. 8.1

      Good point, Karmic. I’ve noticed this a lot. I have a relative that chain smoked for 40 years until it affected her health and she stopped cold turkey. Now, whenever she sees a smoker, she’ll go on about how disgusting it is. Lol

    2. 8.2

      Interesting point Karmic, something I hadn’t considered before.  Come to think of it, women tend to do that too, with their dating problems.  I’ll admit me and my friends have done the “Sex and the City”-style brunches, where we just griped with each other about how evil, shallow, etc. men are.  I’ll admit that in the short term, it felt good to empathize with one another’s bad experiences and validate each other like that.  However, I’ll also admit that in the end, none of that venting actually helped us in getting boyfriends!  I got a great relationship when I really took a hard look at myself and started changing what I had done before (namely, accepting my market value and stop chasing men who weren’t interested in me, for whatever reason.  Not to mention, stop tolerating bad behavior and staying with men who treated me badly).


    3. 8.3

      I totally agree with your point about over-empathizing, but at the same time, what you posted shows that you have zero understanding of what MGTOW is about.  That isn’t an insult because most people, even many men don’t know what it is.


      I think many of the PUAs would better be described by your post than MGTOWs.  The best way I can describe it is that true MGTOWs aren’t upset that they couldn’t get the woman they want, they simply don’t want any woman.  They see and understand that women are less romantic about love, and more practical, and they see that law after law is not in their favor should they get involved with a woman.


      MGTOW shifted, and expanded its focus from merely an anti-Feminist Conservative movement to one that examines female nature as the underlying basis of Feminism. The result was a change from a movement that sought to reform women by fighting Feminism in favor of traditional femininity, to one that rejected women as a whole, and walked away from relationships and institutions such as marriage that exploit men as the disposable utilities of women (Barbarossa, 2012).  A look at Google trends shows how MGTOW has grown in popularity and relevance since this shift.



      It’s easy to just label these guys as losers in the game of romance, but that’s just feel good rhetoric.  They are more correctly labeled as men who looked at the game from a logical standpoint, and then chose not to play.

      1. 8.3.1
        Karmic Equation

        Oh, please, Rusty.

        You, Obsidian, Buck25 aren’t men happily living single without bitterness towards women. Your collective anger towards women is apparent in many posts.

        To NOT describe MGTOWs as losers in romance is what is feel good rhetoric.

        You men aren’t CHOOSING to go your own way. You’re going your own way because you’ve been burned, by not being able to get the women you want or not being able to keep the women you had.

        I would believe your definition if the MGTOWs were populated by never-married male virgins, instead of bitter divorcés.

  9. 9

    Adversity, for most of us, is not something we choose; it chooses us (although sometimes we offer ourselves up for it, in the name of a cause greater than ourselves). Regardless of any of that, when faced with it, we can (a)cope, and muddle through the best we can (b) break down completely, or (c) curl up and die. Those are the only choices, and the last two aren’t really choices at all.

    I’ve seen a lot of adversity during my lifetime. I won’t catalog it here. Some of it was likely very different from what most of you have ever experienced,  ( ancient history to many of you), and that’s just as well. Let’s just say it was a little worse, than failed relationships. I’ve known fear, and death, on an intimate basis; seen the worst of humankind; been through a time when I had more dead friends than live ones, had people who had been friends turn their backs on me in hatred. I’ve lost a wife, and lost a child. There are stories I won’t tell; the world neither wants to known, nor needs to know. It’s past, and it’s done.I’ve survived, kinder and gentler in some ways, with scars on my body, and some cold hard calluses on my soul, both stronger and weaker, at the same time. I suspect it’s that way for all of us; it’s only a matter of degree. We gain strength, but at a price. Is one person’s suffering  more or less than another’s? Who’s to say; who’s to judge?

    In the end, it doesn’t matter. We all do what we must, bear what we must, endure what we must, and live with the aftereffects. That’s life.

  10. 10

    It’s funny, the responses to adversity is never “meh” but these extreme polar opposites that are reactionary. People make reactionary out to be a bad thing, but it’s a neutral response to stressful environments, only the actions and how those actions affect others are relevant.

    I’ve noticed that we actually could ALL say this in a way. I could equally say “I’m a woman of color, I grew up in a damaging environment, and I later finished two master’s degrees, and moved overseas where I currently live, even with social anxiety, so why couldn’t they do XYZ?”.Then again, I was extremely lucky and extremely unlucky in different ways, which affected the choices I had. The compassionate person knows life is complex and some people make it out by the skin of their teeth with a few issues (like anxiety), but some don’t.

    The one thing I wish they had taken further is this: The self-awareness that produces the compassion or lack of compassion. Kids who come from abusive situations who are not self aware grow up to be abusers in many cases.  Self-awareness it seems is the key to counteracting this. MTGOW are incapable of self-awareness; it’s obvious in everything they do, their views, and the choices they make.

    People who are not self-aware, or working on improving themselves often project onto others their ideals. Where a reasonably normal person would say “I’m not probably going to get a 10, and that’s OK, let me make another choice”, they project whatever they want to be true, to escape changing their entitlement, or themselves.

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