Can You Have Too Much Compassion for Others?
Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW
Photo by Dayne Topkin
I love the kind of days when the same themes keep re-appearing from one client to the other. Sometimes the theme is realizing that the most important approval comes from ourselves. Or that detachment is far superior than wanting to change someone. Or the theme that echoed through practically every session one particular Monday in late May.
Most of my clients learn about self-compassion from me and we have long discussions about it how they never learned it from their parents who didn’t possess it or why they never received much of it growing up. They understand that self-compassion—meeting suffering with kindness—is missing in them and generally do quite well in healing their eating and other problems by generated greater care and concern toward themselves. They find it quite amazing how a little self-compassion can go such a long way toward helping them have a better attitude and a better life.
On this particular Monday, the theme was not self-compassion, but compassion toward others and how having too much it can easily get in the way of seeing mistreatment—abuse or neglect—and stopping it dead in its tracks. Specifically, what came up talking with so many clients that day was how they could be so blinded by compassion, caring so much for others, or wanting desperately not to cause them pain, that they would willingly hurt themselves instead.
This may have happened to you. Someone tells you a sob story about their life and you feel so terrible for them that all you can think about is how to help them stop hurting. You’ll do almost anything to stop their pain, even ignore your own or the pain they’re inflicting on you. You’ll pay half their rent, feed them, buy them expensive toys, or lie for them. You’ll literally give them the shirt off your back and happily walk around without one because at least you could something for them.
Having compassion for others is a positive, humane quality, but it must be balanced out with compassion for self: I don’t want you to hurt and I don’t want to hurt either. It also must be balanced out with good judgment. I can’t tell you how many times clients tell me they’ve done inappropriate things for others all because “I felt badly for them.” What is missing in this reasoning is what any particular act will do to you. Sometimes it will harm you outwardly and sometimes it will take its toll inwardly, making you feel like a fool when you think you should have known better.
So, yes, show those who are suffering compassion, but watch that you don’t go overboard and end up hurting yourself.
Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, is an international, award-winning author of seven books on eating, weight and body image, a psychotherapist with 30 years of experience, a health educator, and a popular blogger. Her expertise is in eating psychology and helping over-eaters and binge-eaters improve their self-care and become “normal” eaters. She lives and practices in Sarasota, Florida.
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