Five overarching themes were identified which related to questions outlined by the interview schedule. The analysis is presented in response to the areas of questioning within the interview. In general, participants had some insight into compassion and its link to caring and trying to help individuals in distress.
Compassion to others
Relating to compassion towards other, discussion fell in to two distinct categories; people that participants felt compassionate towards and the type of compassion towards others that they described.
All participants felt they were compassionate to others. Ten participants reported they felt compassionate towards their spouse and children, one solely to their children, and one stated their parents. With regards to those participants felt compassionate towards they shared; “I suppose, they are the top of my list really as far as compassion goes”, or that they were “very, very compassionate” towards others. Another lady found that by helping others “you’re helping yourself at the same time” but stated that she “doesn’t break down in floods of tears on a regular basis, I’m not that kind of person.”
The key types of compassion that participants identified were talking or giving advice, listening and reassuring, physical contact (e.g. a hug), and practical support such as lending money.
In regards to reassurance when family members had problems they felt they would talk through the problems and help wherever possible, for example “I try to help as much as I can to put it right so they are not stressed.” Talking and giving advice as a means of reassurance and compassion to others was reported eleven times by participants. This suggests talking and giving advice is perceived as essential by the participants in being compassionate towards others and as on participant stated “It’s the simple things really”.
Often their compassion was directed to their children and their children’s’ problems. One lady, whose daughter’s husband had died suddenly, said, “Well I’d do anything for them …move in with them…we did actually move in for 3 months ‘cos she’d got a little one 18 months old.” This was reiterated by another participant who stated “whatever it needs to make it better”.
They tried not to interfere with their families marital relationships and would “listen basically and just say keep your chin up, things will be better tomorrow”. However, their family’s problems would cause them distress. “In life children break your heart with their problems… I just think it’s part of life and I just hope they get through it”.
Another lady, however, felt, “I’m not one for sympathy… sympathy in itself isn’t much good… you want some action you want to alleviate the problem… with sympathy, well anyone can just give sympathy.”
Two participants spontaneously felt a hug was the first thing to do to reassure family members; “It’s reassurance, giving them a hug and talking to them and saying don’t worry we’ll get over this”, “She loves a hug, my youngest one,” in this case physical reassurance was only provided for certain members of the family as she continued, “my eldest one is totally different, she’s very very, sort of on her own really.”
In regard to understanding the feelings of others and helping them cope with these feelings most of the responses were in the realm of talking through troubles and helping them “sort things out” and but mainly in “practical” ways. One subject stated openly that she did not “know about feelings. I don’t do much at all with feelings because I think they’re pretty level headed.”
Compassion from others
Most participants stated that they had someone who they felt cared about them in some way and this generally consisted of family members; spouses, partners, children, parents and in-laws. Friends were not mentioned. Children were cited the most as a source of compassion with nine participants saying children; eight stated their spouse with four stating parents and three stating their sibling, notably female participants stating their brothers. There was however one participant who stated “I don’t actually think there is anybody, even parents wise because I don’t see them that much with things, you know.”. One participant stated they ‘see a shrink’ because they don’t receive compassion from anywhere else and that it feels as if they are “unloading all my troubles out of a bag and taking the empty bag out with me.”
Responses to compassion
When asked how compassionate others were to them responses varied from “yes they really care about me” to “No I don’t really think so.” In particular, four people talked about compassion with some resistance and stated how they would rather deal with any problems themselves than share with others or receive help; “I say, “Yes I’m fine” because I don’t want to upset them by saying I’m ill.” “if I had got a problem they would try and help me as much as they could but I’m, I sort of, I tend not to sort of talk to other people.” “I’ve learned to cope with my own strategies, to do it myself with things, you know.” “but some things you just got to deal with, you know, you got to deal with yourself.”.
Two subjects felt that their families could not pick up on their distress. One noted, “I probably try to hide it,” and the other was sure that neither her husband nor her parents or children would know when she was distressed, especially when she did not want them to know she was upset. These individuals reported that their families were not there for them and that they did not receive compassion from them.
In terms of experiencing others expression of compassionate feelings for oneself, one participant suggested that “I think my wife deep down does but she’s not one to show her feelings whereas I can, I would you know, but she would not.” He continued saying that if something goes wrong and he tries to talk to her “she thinks you’re having a go; so it’s difficult in that situation…I’ve learned to cope on my own.”. This suggests difficulties in receiving compassion due to availability.
However, this was not the case for five of the subjects who felt strongly that their families were there for them and would help them, again mostly practically, when necessary; “he makes me feel better when I’ve talked to him about it, whatever it might be. But he’s always been there, always sort of understands.”; “any problems and they’re there right away, you know”; “I’ve only got to ask them if I need anything and they’d be there”; “yeah he does love me, I know that. He’s always telling me that, every day, so.”; “that’s all I needed really [Yeh], a hug and a cup of tea and that’s fine.” These quotes highlight participants’ awareness that they receive compassion in a variety of ways.
How others express compassionate
Of those who reported they felt others were compassionate towards them, compassion was described in a variety of ways. Practical support such as money or giving a lift were cited as compassion; “they are very compassionate but not, not, they don’t go round sympathising, they go, er, ‘do you want a lift somewhere; “I think sometimes it’s just practical things cos often, you know, it depends if it’s something like money”. Being caring, listening and help in general were also considered as compassionate; “You don’t have to do anything specific, you know if somebody cares about you.”; “Yeah, they will listen and they always ask, you know, “Are you okay?” sort of thing,”; “But they are such a great help if, if the cards are on the table and things get rough, you know.”
Encouragement, particularly around weight loss is viewed as compassion from others, at least by two participants; “my son’s brilliant for trying to encourage me….he wants to take me out on all these jogs and things …..and when I’ve got on the scales and lost two pounds he says that’s brilliant but don’t forget you’re not cooking a lot today, no massive meals”; “encouraging me and saying how well I look and just to keep going and just encouraging really, yeah.”. This suggests that compassionate acts mean different types of things to individuals.
Compassion to self
Six subjects felt that they were not self-compassionate. For example, “…..not very good at that”; “I don’t suppose (I do it) enough really”; “honestly, probably I’m not very compassionate towards myself…no definitely not”; one lady even stated that “I’m not. I hate myself.” This participant continued by saying that, “the way I look at it, if I hate myself then how can people ‘like’ me …..I am very compassionate friendly with them, I put myself out I mean my hours at work, it’s four a day, I end up spending six hours a day there because …they haven’t got enough staff so I feel sorry for them and I think well if I stay it might make them like me more, because I’m big you don’t have many friends so you end up staying three hours extra a day…then they can’t be judging me oh well she’s just a fat person who likes sitting on her backside doing nothing…because I don’t like myself I want to be able to hold my head up high and be proud of me”.
One participant described how they have become more self-compassionate. One participant, who had been losing weight as part of a weight loss programme at a GP surgery felt that, “I think I am more compassionate towards myself in terms of in a practical way…before I lost…I was quite ambivalent about myself…it genuinely didn’t bother me I was getting bigger and bigger…what I saw in the mirror I almost really didn’t look that hard…it was more important to me to be able to eat what I wanted…I knew I was an unhealthy weight and that wasn’t good for me. I overrode those feelings because it didn’t bother me what I looked like…I think that was the problem why I didn’t have a spur to diet. I think other people feel quite strongly about body image and feel a bit of self-disgust I didn’t…I felt, if I’m honest that if I made the decision to lose weight I would do it. I knew I had the strength of personality to do it; I just didn’t want to do it.” It was only when her weight began to affect her health and stopped her doing the things she enjoyed that she decided to engage with a weight loss programme and she felt that now she was being far more compassionate towards herself.
Another participant felt that she was “alright now. I’ve learnt to love myself now but five years ago I didn’t love myself and I was a gambler, I was a chronic gambler…someone told me at GA to stop betting, you’ve gotta like yourself first”. This lady now feels she is compassionate towards herself and feels that ‘by distancing herself from her family’, being less enmeshed but taking short trips on her mobility scooter to see them. She felt it is important to have ‘a little quiet time’ and be able to unwind as a way of looking after herself.
When discussing what the participants did to help themselves when they were distressed, several stated that they used to eat but have stopped eating to cope with their distress as they were currently trying to lose weight. One lady stated that “I used to eat and I have to say that eating is quite nice still but long term it will make me feel more miserable.” More recently therefore the subjects stated that they have changed their lifestyle so that they, they are now going to the gym, for a swim, a massage or a walk.
Compassion in childhood
All participants referred to some difficulties during childhood, mainly regarding family but some drew upon experiences at school, in particular with regards to being overweight. There was no specific abuse from parents or carers mentioned although some bullying from siblings and peers was. Problems from childhood varied. For example, some participants referred to problems of being one of too many children, especially coming from a poor background. One participant felt that she loved cooking and food and wondered if there was a link to the poverty in her young life and her present need to “make sure I have a stock of food in…to make sure you’re never without food.” These participants did feel that there was little compassion for them when growing up due to the issues of poverty, the arguments about money, and the fact the parents were so busy earning what money there was and that there was no time for them on an individual basis “you were swept along with the rest of the family.”
Three participants had been only children. One participant felt, “I often got blamed for stuff I didn’t even do.” “Being wrongly accused was awful.”
Another participant was born to parents in their late 30s. She was not allowed to go out to play with other children in the street. “I used to make my own games….I had all sort of toys and dolls and never went short of anything”. However, at school she ended up feeling “a little bit out of it cos everybody else had got brothers and sisters and young parents and I didn’t.”
Three participants reported that their parents had got divorced and how this was “disruptive” due to the stigma attached to divorce at the time. All factors relating to family dynamics and experiences of compassion in childhood seemed to be underpinned by the absence of affection and time from parents. Four participants reported that due to their parents work commitments this limited time and affection available to them as children; in addition to this two participants stated they felt their parents gave more time and affection to their siblings rather than to them. Due to this notion of compassion not being readily available from parents, a common theme, for eight participants was seeking compassion from elsewhere. Other sources of compassion discussed included aunts, grandparents, and communal support from a village. Food was also cited as a comfort by three participants.
Being overweight as a child did lead to bullying at secondary school. One participant had a method of dealing with bullying of this kind, “if anyone called me names I’d just turn round and belt them one because I could because I’d got the weight.” But it did hurt and he would keep things to himself and felt he had ended up “being a loner.”
Response to self-relapse
All participants were trying to lose weight in order to help with medical conditions. The participants from the Bariatric clinic had to show they could lose weight in order to have a gastric band or other forms of weight loss surgery. Therefore when initially asked how they would feel if they had put on weight the replies ranged from being disappointed to “absolutely repulsed with myself.” In response to having compassion towards themselves during a relapse, one participant felt she would feel “mad rather than compassionate.” Many participants had similar reactions, “I’d hate it, absolutely hate it….then because I’d feel angry I’d end up eating more, it wouldn’t stop”; “pretty disgusted with myself because I think I’ve worked so hard to lose weight and I think I’ve radically changed my diet”; “Well you stupid idiot you shouldn’t have done that….I’d start telling myself off.”
Overall, one of the notable finding of this theme is just how hostile and how much self-hating goes on when individuals are trying to confront weight difficulties and struggle to lose weight or gain weight.
Response to relapse in others
Participants’ responses were very different when they were asked to imagine a friend having a lapse in eating. Most of the participants felt they would try to motivate and encourage their friend, especially with practical advice on their eating habits, often making suggestions that had helped them personally. They appeared to understand the difficulties the other person was facing and would try to help them in any way they could. “I’d say to her ‘right come on then girl let’s sit down and do this together. You know it’s important enough for you to get the weight off as well as me let’s sit down let’s do it together and we’ll have a weigh in once a week together’…and I’d phone her…to make sure she hasn’t cheated.”
Only two participants were not so compassionate, “well I don’t think I could because it’s up to them and unless you take food away from them you can’t help them”; “I would call them silly stupid…my friend whose diabetic…she’s on dialysis…and I think she’s having chocolate…and I tell her to her face…you’re stupid then.”
For the most part even though participants were self-hating in relation to their own weight problems, they articulated that they would not be like this with other people.