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When Compassion Is Freely Available, It’s Seldom Needed

The major inhibitors: fear, shame, guilt.

Key points

  • Compassion is the lifeblood of close relationships, but it’s difficult to maintain for extended periods of time.
  • Fear, shame, and guilt inhibit compassion.
  • Inhibitions can be overcome with practice.
  • The Compassion Paradox: If available whenever needed, it's rarely needed.

Compassion is the healing emotion. We can hardly heal emotional injury without self-compassion and compassion for loved ones.

Compassion is also the lifeblood of love relationships; they cannot thrive without it. Couples don’t fight about the issues that trigger disagreement alone, they most often fight about a failure of compassion—“You don’t care how I feel!” When partners are sympathetic to each other’s feelings, issues are frequently resolved or deemed less important.

Through no fault of their own, many people suffer disabling inhibitions that stifle their natural motivation to be compassionate. They cannot heal old hurts and cannot love without hurt.

The Major Inhibitors: Fear, Shame, Guilt

Fear inhibition rises from the impression that compassion makes us vulnerable and leads inevitably to hurt. This is typical of those who were punished or rejected for attempts to be compassionate to someone fearful of compassion.

Shame inhibition is more complex, consisting of:

  • Perceived inadequacy (can’t do it for very long or not at all)
  • Dread of being perceived as weak
  • Dread of becoming a doormat

Guilt inhibitions show up at the worst times, when partners most need compassion. When the hurt or distress of partners invokes memories of past failures, the guilt-inhibited turn away. I’ve had many clients who can’t look at their hurt, distressed, or sad partners because vulnerable expressions remind them of how badly they’ve behaved.

Inhibitions run on autopilot, bypassing conscious awareness. As a result, they lack reality testing. The first step in freeing yourself from the inhibitions that diminish well-being and impair relationships is totest their reality.


Compassion makes us less vulnerable. It helps us see the vulnerability of others beneath their surface behavior, which is driven by symptoms and defenses. It helps us distinguish disappointment from rejection.

For example, some people cope with bad feelings or circumstances with blame. Being blamed is disappointing but not shame-inducing when it’s recognized as the blamer’s coping tool, conveying little or no information about you.

In another example, a client I treated was shamed by his male co-workers for developing compassion for his wife. They called him, to shorten the expression, “whipped.” The shame he endured at work caused a temporary relapse into the self-obsessed behavior that was hurtful to his wife.

In treatment, he recognized that his co-workers’ derision came from their own senses of inadequacy. He was protected from shame by having sympathy for those who mock compassion. He adopted a posture of, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Because he didn’t react in kind, his co-workers stopped shaming him. He showed two of them how to use compassion to raise their self-value and save their marriages.

We’re More Powerful When Compassionate than Angry

Unfortunately, most people react with anger to the powerlessness that can accompany vulnerable emotions. The adrenaline of anger makes them feel temporarily more confident and powerful. But feeling powerful is not being powerful.

Genuine power isn’t acting on impulse; it’s behaving in ways that promote long-term best interests. We’re far more likely to behave in our long-term best interests with compassion than with anger.

The Compassion Paradox

The inadequacy inhibition is based on false assumptions about the duration of compassionate behavior. I’ve had many clients say, “I can do it for a short while, but I can’t keep it going, and my partner is so needy.”

Those who feel they can’t sustain compassion assume that it must last a long time, which is usually not the case. Most acts of compassion are short-lived.

For example, a toddler plays on the floor while his mother works on her laptop. The toddler hurts his finger and goes to his mother for comfort. She stops what she was doing and kisses his finger, hugs him, soothes him. The toddler goes back to his playing, secure in the knowledge that comfort is available when needed. The mother returns to her work, able to concentrate because her child is well. Neither mother nor child noticed that the compassionate behavior took only a minute or so. After a few iterations of compassionate behavior, the child learns to soothe himself.

Suppose the mother, stressed by her work, rebuffed the child’s bid for comfort. The child might then worry that compassion is not available when needed. He’ll find other ways to get her attention. If the mother finds those annoying and rebuffs him further, he’ll misbehave or break something, because negative attention is better than no attention.

Absent extraordinary stress of illness, needy partners are compassion-deprived, which brings us to the compassion paradox: When compassion is available whenever needed, it’s seldom needed.

Practice showing compassion for any hurt or distress, and you’ll see that your partner’s need for it declines in frequency and intensity.

To overcome the guilt inhibition, we must more accurately interpret the guilt signal. It's not punishment for past mistakes to be avoided at all costs; it's motivation to be true to your deeper values in the present. The only functional way to overcome guilt is to act on its motivation for corrective behavior. The key is shifting focus from how bad you feel to what can you do to help your partner feel better.

All inhibitions grow stronger when we give in to them. But once overcome, they weaken significantly. We must step up to the plate and fight inhibitions until compassionate response to loved ones becomes a habit. Reward yourself for each success.

Compassion Screens

Compassion failures at home often result from porous or rigid compassion screens outside the home. Compassion consumes enormous mental and physical resources. Without compassion screens, we can be easily overwhelmed.

A porous compassion screen makes us give too much and take on too much, causing burnout or fusion with others. The latter makes us reactive, dependent, and manipulative, as we try to regulate our emotions by controlling those with whom we’re fused.

Rigid compassion screens are defensive in nature. People afflicted with them give too little and renounce the responsibility to care about the emotional hurt or distress of loved ones.

Persons with flexible compassion screens neither give too much nor too little. They balance self-compassion with compassion for others. The secret lies in empowerment—giving someone the confidence to solve their own problems. Compassion for others supports their autonomy, dignity, and need for self-sufficiency. It's helping others help themselves. Flexible compassion screens consume fewer mental resources, so that compassion for loved ones is available when needed.

You can make your compassion screen more flexible by practicing compassionate assertiveness at home—standing up for your rights, opinions, and preferences while respecting the rights, opinions, preferences, and vulnerabilities of loved ones.

With practice, you’ll find that compassion is as self-rewarding and self-renewing as Mother Theresa famously described. To paraphrase the saint, you can’t help everyone all the time, but you can help the people close to you every time they need it.