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

When is Compassion Idiotic?

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 1st 2012

questionThe term compassion has received a lot of attention lately. In some circles the word has lost its luster as when anything is over used. However, compassion is critical to ourselves, our relationships and our world. But here’s a side of compassion you need to know about that may not be the healing quality we’re all looking for. 

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." Longtime meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein says compassion is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes with the extra feeling of wanting to help them in some way. If more people in the world were like this, we may just have a better world. 

But, 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.

It may be worthwhile to reflect on how does idiot and true 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.

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