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

Compassion May Not Be What You Think It Is

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 8th 2012

There’s been a lot of talk about compassion in recent years. In fact, entire organizations are being set up around the world to help bring this more fully into our lives. In an earlier blog I wrote about the mental health benefits of compassion.  However, there’s a key differentiator that needs to be brought to light around what compassion is and what it’s not. 

First of all, what is compassion? Compassion may be best described as being able to understand where someone is coming from and with the desire to help. We may have compassion for someone suffering from an illness or for people starving in other countries or for others in war torn countries. 

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, although it provides temporary relief, 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. Karen Kissell Wegela author of What Really Helps argues that sometimes, "true compassion can be described as ‘ruthless.'" For example, we may need to withhold 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.

    Mindful Compassion - Mark Flamand - Mar 13th 2012

    Practicing mindful compassion could also be an exercise in finding out how comfortable we are with conflict.

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