The Downside of Compassion

If you're a good person, you're bound to feel guilty sometimes.

Posted Mar 19, 2014

Source: Tinxi/Shutterstock

There are numerous occasions in which a decision you’re obliged to make carries the unfortunate side effect of hurting someone else. That is, in taking the necessary steps to protect your welfare (personal safety, interests, boundaries, integrity) you may undeniably become the source of another’s woe. Assuming you’re a caring, considerate person, making such a decision will inevitably lead you to experience a certain amount of guilt. This uncomfortable feeling derives precisely from your compassionate response toward the other person’s pain—which, admittedly, you’re at least partially responsible for.

As ironic as it may seem, in viewing another’s misfortune empathically, your positive fellow-feeling is likely to lead to your viewing yourself negatively. For in any situation, it’s ultimately your perspective that determines your emotions. So if, say, you’re emotionally identifying with another’s experience of failure or rejection, you’ll feel compassion for them. But if you then re-focus your attention on yourself—as having instigated that rejection—you cannot help but feel bad about yourself… In a word, guilty.

Let me provide a few hypothetical examples:

  • You’re planning a trip with your best friend and, having learned of your plans, another one of your broad circle of friends requests that she join the two of you. But this second (frankly, not all that close) friend is somewhat temperamental and—as you’d learned, regretfully, from a previous trip—doesn’t travel well with others. She’s rather vain and finicky, and would much rather spend time looking for spots to buy trinkets than adventurously explore new terrain and engage with the locals. Besides, your best friend doesn’t much like her, seeing her as too much of a complainer, and too negative in general.

    You’re aware of how easily this person’s feelings can be hurt, though, so despite your reservations about having her accompany you, you’re reluctant to turn her down. Compassionately, you imagine how her feelings will be hurt if you refuse her company. After all, she’s not really a bad person.

    Scrupulously examining the situation from every possible viewpoint, you finally decide that you need to make up some sort of white lie as to why it just wouldn’t be feasible for her to join the two of you. Nonetheless, you can’t but feel guilty, knowing that your denial will probably be a strong blow to her fragile ego. In private, she once shared  that she’s long suffered from poor self-esteem, so it troubles you that your decision to exclude her will almost certainly worsen this problem for her.
  • You’ve finally decided to leave your marriage of more than three decades. You’ve tried couples counseling twice, and even though your mate was willing to go with you, you’ve gradually come to realize that given who he or she is, they’re never going to changeand that this relationship will never enable you to get your core relational needs met. Your children are grown, so you don’t have to be concerned that they might lack the emotional resources to deal with the divorce.

    But regardless of your knowing how much your future happiness depends on making the break, you can’t help but feel considerable guilt about how much pain you know your decision will cause your partner. Even though you’ve felt belittled, neglected, mentally and emotionally abused by them, you may yet experience substantial compassion for them, realizing that they haven’t intentionally tried to make you feel miserable and that in many ways you’ve permitted—may, defensively, even have encouraged—them to become extremely dependent on you.

    As a direct result of your compassionate understanding of the situation you’re about to put your spouse in, you experience the most distressing, nagging feelings of guilt. And in fact these troublesome feelings may never be altogether resolved. For they’re really inseparable from the compassion your caring concern for him or her literally compels you to feel.
  • You’ve hired an assistant to help you expand your business. The person has many admirable qualities. She (or he) is not only extremely likeable but also trustworthy, loyal, and reliable. This individual also happens to be in an exceptionally precarious financial situation—and therefore is heavily dependent on the salary you pay them.

    But at the same time, this person has been making many costly errors. And despite your patience, careful monitoring and instruction, they just don’t seem able to develop the skills requisite to adequately perform the job. At one point—after they’ve made the same basic mistake for the fourth time—it becomes painfully obvious that you simply have to let them go. But just thinking about all the hardships your dismissing them is likely to cause afflicts you with enormous feelings of guilt.

    So here again, your empathy and compassion virtually dictate that you’ll have to experience some negative feelings about yourself, just for doing what you realize you can’t afford not to do.

I could provide countless other scenarios that unfortunately link compassion (intrinsically a very healthy, nurturant feeling toward self and others) with guilt (a most unhealthy, self-defeating feeling). These examples might include such "susceptible" relationships as parent/child, teacher/student, landlord/tenant, etc. But by now my main point should be clear: Ironically, your warmest, most concerned and caring feelings may end up generating considerable distress in you as well.

Such emotional discomfort is perhaps best regarded, paradoxically, as the downside of compassion. And it should be emphasized that it’s generally not very wise to let feelings of guilt—or rather, the attempt to avoid them—play a major role in your decision-making. As an adult you have every right to give your own welfare top priority in deciding how to act. All the same, in doing something you’re fully justified to do, you may at times also hurt another. And to the degree that you’re a warm, caring person, causing such hurt is bound—vicariously—to hurt you as well.

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  • For a quite different take on compassion, see my post "Can Compassion Transcend Forgiveness?"
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© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.