Leslie Becker-Phelps Ph.D.

Making Change

Can You Be Too Compassionate?

What passes as compassion may fall short of the real thing.

Posted Jan 04, 2018

Juanita Foucault/Pixabay
Source: Juanita Foucault/Pixabay

You see yourself as a compassionate person. You are easily pained by other people’s suffering and want to ease it. However, acting solely on that desire falls short of being fully compassionate. An often-misunderstood idea, compassion is more than just wanting to ease someone’s immediate pain.

From my clinical perspective, compassion involves:

Empathy is the ability to understand and experience someone else’s feelings. At its core is what researcher Kristin Neff calls common humanity, or a sense of shared humanity with all other people. While empathy generally underlies compassionate desires, it is possible to try to ease someone’s pain for other reasons – such as drug companies offering anti-depressants to increase their profits.

Concern for someone’s suffering is essential to compassion. Beyond simple empathy, this is a caring reaction to empathic feelings. Because you know what it feels like to be deeply hurt or overwhelmed, you naturally want others to be free of such suffering. This desire is often expressed with caring actions, but may simply be a wish for someone’s suffering to be alleviated.

Wanting to help someone, or yourself, in a way that is good for the whole person is more than just wanting to immediately ease their pain. This distinction can be easy to miss, but it is important. For instance, if you drink yourself into oblivion or snort cocaine, you may be acting to ease emotional pain, but you are not really being compassionate toward yourself. Something is definitely missing when the supposedly compassionate actions or desires involve create more harm than good.

Being aware of the greater good for someone often leads to a different response in everyday life. For instance, you’re coming from a caring place when you appeal to your middle school son’s teacher to let him hand an assignment in late because he was sick. But if you always stepped in to ease the way for son, it would rob him of the opportunity to learn to advocate for himself. This also applies to how you respond to yourself. For instance, if you decide to stay home rather than face your social anxiety at a party, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to overcome your fears and ultimately enjoy the company of friends. So, rather than just focusing on immediately alleviating your or someone else’s distress, a more compassionate response might be to offer support for facing fears and pursuing personal growth.

Inner strength enables people to be compassionate. In many ways, wanting to alleviate someone’s pain is the easy part. But recognizing that this may not be the best option – or even an option at all – can be distressing. And you then have the more difficult task of remaining empathic while the person struggles; meaning that you will carry some of their pain. So, being truly compassionate sometimes involves the difficult task of weighing out whether the best action is to do something to reduce someone’s pain now or empathically support them through a difficult experience.

Importantly, to be compassionate, you must nurture your inner self. Many people think that being compassionate means they need to tolerate another person’s problematic behaviors, but that is just not true. If you know someone is overwhelmed and angry about some life circumstance, compassion does not require that you allow yourself to be a victim of their aggression – verbal or physical. And if you are in a relationship with someone who is an alcoholic or drug abuser, being compassionate does not mean you must stay in that relationship. In fact, a good case can be made for viewing tolerance of such unhealthy behaviors as being at odds with compassion.

Think of it this way: Imagine you want to help a drowning friend. You jump in the water, but with all their thrashing about, you find that you can’t help them and you may drown trying to help. Instead, if you throw them a lifesaver (e.g. giving an alcoholic information on AA), you give them a better chance to survive without a threat to your own life. You have empathized with their situation and offered a way out that can help them – the rest is up to them. 

So, can you be too compassionate? With this definition of compassion, it’s hard to imagine how you can be too compassionate. In its fullest form, compassion requires caring for yourself as you experience a concern for someone’s pain and a desire for them to have a sense of greater well-being.

If you would like to learn more about this topic, check out this brief video:

Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.