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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

The Dangers of Compassion

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 31st 2009

dark lotusThe importance of cultivating compassion for mental health has received a tremendous amount of press in recent years. In an earlier blog I even wrote about the mental health benefits of compassion.  But what about the downsides, what about the dangers of compassion? It's not all roses...what you need to know.

First of all, when someone says they're being compassionate, what does that even mean? In her book, The Courage to Be Present, psychotherapist Karen Kissel Wegela writes that compassion has been described as "clarity tinged with warmth." We often talk about putting ourselves in another person's shoes so even if we are angry with them, we might first acknowledge our anger and then be able to gain some perspective and feel some compassion for the difficulties they face or the ignorance that led them to do intolerant acts.

Ok, here it is, here's the danger of compassion. If we think that just being nice to someone is compassion, we may choose to give an alcoholic some alcohol because we can't stand to see him or her suffering. Is this compassion? Some people call this "idiot compassion," (excuse the harsh judgment) because it actually enables the person and inevitably furthers their suffering. Keeping the alcoholic in a state of avoiding pain is not a path toward health.

The alcoholic will again face withdrawals and continue causing damage. When compassion is shrouded in this form, it is not only unhelpful, but can be dangerous.

True compassion isn't just about being nice to someone who is suffering. Wegela argues that sometimes, "true compassion can be described as ‘ruthless.'" For example, we may need to withold the alcohol from the alcoholic even though it elicits pain or we may need to set boundaries with those who are hurtful or abusive. In other words, we need to be willing to act in the greater interest of health for ourselves and others and this requires a level of awareness that most of us don't have in difficult moments. That is why acting from a place of true compassion is an aspiration, a beacon to support us as we attempt to act in this way, while not always having the awareness to.

In the area of positive psychology, compassion is being studied and is being seen as strength and a component of happiness.

How does compassion show up in your life?

Experiment: Try practicing true compassion during the next hour or throughout the day. What happens, what do you notice? You can begin by practicing it with yourself.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interactions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Compassion vs Empathy - D.Singh - May 23rd 2010

    I do agree that withholding things that causes further pain to an individual is quite necessary. But that is just common sense not compassion.

    Empathy is trying to put yourself in someone elses shoes so you can understand how they feel. Compassion on the other hand is understanding how they feel and then taking steps to eliminate their suffering.

    It is very important to know the difference between the two.

     

    Practicing Compassion - Cathy - Sep 4th 2009

    For me, practicing compassion is part of the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  I can put myself in the other person's shoes always to some extent just because I was brought up that way.  My partner cannot do this and really doesn't understand the concept.  I was concerned that our son with developmental disabilities functioning at the pre-school level might not ever develop compassion but to my delight, at age 22, he started to show compassion for those suffering.  I think compassion does sometimes have to be tough love when you are deeply involved with the person since, let's face it, a person that shows compassion is a real attraction to an emotional vampire and they suck you dry or at least try. 

    Buddha-bullying ? - JR - Sep 4th 2009

    Compassion as tough (possibly very tough) love ?  Perhaps.  I think that this interpretation is open to some argument.  Worthy of consideration, though - my personal system of belief is, if not exactly Buddhist,  certainly of a philosophical system close to Buddhism, but compassion has always been a bit of a difficulty for me.  In the first instance, I might say, in simply deciding what it is ...

    Best regards and thanks,

    JR

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