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Compassion Privilege: Why Caring People Are Sometimes Unkind

Compassion Privilege Part 1

This post is published in three parts. Please click on the link below for Part 2.

For those of us who hold compassion as a central value, and perhaps are actively working to create a more compassionate world, one of the most frustrating and demoralizing experiences is having to deal with uncompassionate people. These are people who, despite being made aware of widespread suffering or of their harmful impact on those around them, seem not to care and to prioritize their own self-interest over the well-being of others.

Ironically, though, our frustration with those who are disconnected from their compassion is often precisely what causes us to disconnect from our own compassion. We may struggle to feel charitable, to maintain a sense of goodwill toward these individuals, and we may therefore interact with them in a way that brings about the opposite effect of what we want. For example, perhaps you explain to someone that eating more vegan foods supports the well-being of animals and the planet —only to be told that they have no intention of changing their behaviors, simply because bacon tastes good. Incensed, you start to shame and blame in an attempt to push your message forward—but now you’re no longer acting with compassion and the other person is probably even less connected to their compassion than they were in the first place.

If we hope to bring more compassion into the world, we need to change the way we think about this quality. Instead of thinking of people as “compassionate” and therefore “good” and vice versa, we need to appreciate that compassion is a quality or state 1 that people have more or less access to , depending on a variety of factors; and when people can’t access their compassion, it can cause them to suffer. Just as we wouldn’t look at a starving person on the street and feel contempt for them because they don’t have access to as much food as we do, we shouldn’t look down on people who aren’t able to access their compassion as much as we are. A more productive approach is to be curious to learn what obstacles are preventing someone from accessing their compassion and, if possible, to try to create an environment that better enables them to do so.

I know that what I’m proposing may seem counterintuitive. So to help explain my point, I’d like you to imagine the following scenario.


It’s one of those days when so many things go wrong that it feels like the world is conspiring against you. After the neighbors’ TV keeps you up half the night, you sleep through your alarm, which you’d set to give you extra time to prepare for your important morning presentation. You awake late, exhausted, and horrified. You dash out the door, without breakfast but with your desperately needed coffee in hand, and jump in your car. In your haste, you speed along in the passing lane of the crowded highway. Suddenly, your rearview mirror is dominated by an SUV that’s so close you can’t even see its headlights; but there’s no space for you to get out of its way and merge into the middle lane. Terrified, you put on your turn signal and tap your brakes, but the angry face in the mirror doesn’t budge. You pull into the first opening you get, and the rearview driver lurches past, leaning toward you shaking his fist, as though you’re the offender. Minutes later, a sea of red lights looms before your windshield, and as you hit the brakes to avoid crashing into the traffic jam, your coffee topples and splashes over your shoes and the floor.

Trying not to sweat even more than you already are in your clean shirt, you reassure yourself you can still be on time if you just take an alternate route. You pull off at the next exit, following the advice of the GPS that’s guiding you. But by the time you’re deep into unfamiliar territory, the GPS switches from instructing you to repeating that she’s “recalculating.” Stricken, you grab your phone to let your colleagues know you’re running late, but the same dead zone that’s swallowed your GPS’s reception—and that state officials have been promising for years would be wired—has eaten all the bars on your phone.

You finally arrive at your office building, too late to give your presentation.

In front of the entrance, two young women are handing out leaflets about climate change and collecting signatures for a petition. As one approaches you and smiles, you scowl and snap at her to leave you alone as you push past her through the revolving doors.

How Stress Blocks Compassion

Think about how much harder it is to be your better self after just one difficult morning—or even one difficult conversation; we’ve all regretted things we’ve said or done in the heat of an argument. After stressful experiences, especially those involving other people whose behaviors upset us, even if we truly want and try to act in ways that reflect our integrity, our moral values, we’re simply less able to. We’re more grumpy, distrustful, and uncharitable; and we’re less likely to notice or care about the wellbeing of others. We have less access to our compassion.

Compassion is the feeling of concern for the well-being of others, and the desire to act on that concern.

When we’re in a state of suffering ourselves, we’re both biochemically and psychologically less able to feel compassionate. Our neurochemicals cause us to be in a state of hyperarousal, or fight-or-flight mode, which makes us less able to think rationally or to feel empathy for others. To a greater or lesser degree, we are in survival mode, which inevitably makes us more narcissistic, or self-focused. Think about it this way: if a person is drowning, they’re not thinking about how they can support others; all they can do is try to grab onto anything that floats.

And our suffering shapes our narrative, 2 which is the story we tell ourselves about our experience—including about the roles different individuals in it play—and which drives our feelings and behaviors. At the end of your stressful morning, you probably feel less trustful of your fellow humans, doubting that they care about, or are even able to be tuned into and supportive of, your well-being, given that they kept you up at night, almost caused you to have a crash, and hadn’t fulfilled their promises to wire the dead zone you got stuck in. Since trust is the foundation of healthy relationships and is what enables us to feel secure and connected with other individuals, you probably feel a sense of insecurity and disconnection from others, as you wrap yourself in emotional armor to protect yourself from being deceived or hurt again. But such emotional withdrawal only exacerbates your pain; research has shown that we’re hardwired to need authentic connection to thrive and that we cannot experience connection with others or ourselves when we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable—open-hearted.

One stressful morning can cause you to feel misanthropic and disconnected from others, and from yourself—from your own heart, your compassion.

The Feedback Loop of Compassion

Being disconnected from our compassion can cause us to suffer. And, in turn, it causes us to contribute to the suffering of others. In other words, when we are in pain, it’s harder for us to access our compassion; and when we can’t access our compassion, we’re more likely to cause others pain, in a feedback loop.

Being connected to our compassion also contributes to a feedback loop. Consider the times in your life when you’ve felt open-hearted; chances are, you felt more generous. Maybe you paid the toll for the driver behind you, just to be kind. Maybe you offered to give up your aisle seat on an airplane so a couple could sit together. Probably, in these moments, you were feeling less stressed and more secure and connected, with yourself and others. And your compassionate acts caused the people around you to react with kindness themselves, reinforcing your positive sense of humanity and of yourself. If you’d passed the climate change activists after a day at the spa instead of after a series of stressful encounters, you’d have been more likely to sign their petition—or at least not to treat them with disdain—and probably felt better about yourself because of it.

Click here to read Part 2 of this post.


1. Compassion is also a value.

2. Our narrative also shapes our experience of suffering.