Turn Pity, Overwhelm and “Idiot Compassion” into Compassion
An out-of-state meditation student asked me if a particular act she performed at work was compassionate. She works with troubled kids as a case manager, and she responded to a client who was being tremendously unstable, by simply holding space.
She didn’t say anything, respond to his declarations or accusations, simply stood patiently while he flailed around. It was a rare circumstance for her to be able to even act this way—just the two of them alone, no one else around, some time on their hands. Eventually, he quieted down.
Then, he approached her and asked what on earth she was doing.
“Waiting for you to be ready to communicate with me clearly.”
It worked. He calmed down. He was able to talk to her in a way he wasn’t able to before. She was very happily surprised—this was the first time she’d used her Buddhist studies in her workplace. I confirmed that I thought it was by far the most compassionate thing she could do.
However, it really pissed off her fellow social workers. They were angry she took so much time, skeptical that it made a difference, insistent that you have to “not let him get his way.” She became confused, wondering if they were right, even after feeling very clear about the interaction.
I mentioned the teachings on near and far enemies from Pema Chodron’s From Fear to Fearlessness and The Places That Scare You. (This link takes you to a handy PDF someone made of these teachings, amongst other pithy helpful bits about the drama triangle. On pages four-five, you’ll find the chart that explains near and far enemies.)
In particular, compassion is the tricky one, with no fewer than three near enemies. The far enemy of compassion is clear: cruelty. However, the near enemies are far less clear, thus their proximity.
They are: 1. Pity, 2. Overwhelm, 3. Idiot compassion. The first one is pretty familiar to most. The second is very familiar to some, less to others. The third may sound weird, but as soon as I describe it, I trust you will know what I am talking about.
1. Pity seems like compassion, but it isn’t.
It is insidious. It’s our patronizing belief that someone is in trouble, but we are beyond their trouble. Looking at random images of poor people in ads for charities, without a context or explanation, provokes pity. Telling only stories of suffering without any empowering from the inside encourages pity. Pity increases distance between you and the person you are pitying, which is part of its power, and it’s downfall. Compassion literally means “with feeling”—pity is a party to which the subject of the story is not invited.
Pity is what most of the care workers my student encounters on her job are experiencing. “Well, that’s just how he is.” “There’s nothing we can do.” It’s a survival mechanism—if we can distance ourselves, it removes agency from anyone—the sufferer and the witness mutually. It is, unfortunately, pretty much our main response to suffering.
Pity: A Near Enemy of Compassion
Pity or professional warmth is easily mistaken for true compassion. When we identify ourselves as the helper, it means we see others as helpless. Instead of feeling the pain of the other person, we set ourselves apart. If we’ve ever been on the receiving end of pity we know how painful it feels. Instead of warmth and support all we feel is distance. With true compassion these up—down identities are stripped away.
2. Overwhelm feels like compassion fatigue, but it is actually avoidance.
Ever feel like you cannot watch any more suffering on the news, or hear any more stories from friends or family who are struggling? Sometimes we need to set boundaries, take breaks, watch a funny cat video, reconnect with nature. I am not saying that the world isn’t in rough shape—it is. However, if you repeatedly respond to suffering—in yourself or others—with a sense of overwhelm that shuts you down, you are not feeling true compassion. You are not connecting at all.
When we truly are empathic and connect with others, when we truly tap in to the way things are, the world gives us energy. We see a full balance—that while suffering is a human experience, everything changes. There are gaps, openings and possibilities. Overwhelm is another survival mechanism—too much means no agency, which means no responsibility. However, it is not true compassion. It is slightly more insidious than pity because it is all over our culture. Because it’s acceptable to feel overwhelmed by suffering, while there are more traps to catch us in the act of pitying.
Overwhelm is a common reaction for social workers, as well. Especially when working with clients who are homeless, suffering from mental illness: it’s too much. Easy to get overwhelmed. Easy to choose to opt out, even as it feels hard, painful to do it. Given the choice between dissociating—shutting down, feeling overwhelmed—and engaging, we choose overwhelm.
We choose it. It doesn’t feel like a choice, but once we begin training in actual compassion practices, we can feel the difference. And when others pity or are overwhelmed by us, we can feel that, too. We know it makes us feel worse, and better if someone truly connects, with their own boundaries. Like the student who was talking to me, who was able to use her prajna, her wisdom in the moment to choose the right action. She was not overwhelmed, she did not stop interacting to protect herself. She did it because she had a feeling, from studying dharma and practicing, that what she had done before—yell, interrupt, make demands, stand back and pity, feel overwhelmed—would not help.
3. My meditation student also had an inkling that idiot compassion—though she didn’t know that phrase—wouldn’t help.
Lest we think that either of the two above teachings are telling us to plunge ourselves in full-force, it’s absolutely significant to set boundaries, so long as they are not actually distancing us personally from the situation. In realizing interdependence, there is no separation—in an ultimate sense—between me and you, or my student and her client.
And yet, sometimes, often on a relative level, there does need to be a clear separation. This is the main thing that idiot compassion gets wrong. It is by far the most subtle of the near enemies of compassion, and one that arises especially for people who think they have practiced a lot and know how to be of benefit in the world.
Idiot Compassion: The Nearest Enemy of Compassion
The third enemy of compassion is idiot compassion. This is when we avoid conflict and protect our good image by being kind when we should say a definite ‘no.’ Compassion doesn’t imply only trying to be good. When we find ourselves in an aggressive relationship, we need to set clear boundaries. The kindest thing we can do for everyone concerned is to know when to say ‘enough.’ Many people use Buddhist ideals to justify self-debasement. In the name of not shutting our heart, we let people walk all over us. It is said that in order not to break our vow of compassion we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line. There are times when the only way to bring down the barriers is to set barriers.
My student avoided this by making a clear separation through space—not engaging, not getting involved in her client’s drama. She actually stopped what was happening by expressing real compassion, real space, allowing there to be enough room for him to feel what he was feeling without herself investing in the outcome or in stopping him. While this may seem dispassionate, it is far from it—what my student did was allow him his full experience, without trying to stop it, or get herself caught in it.
The “idiot” in idiot compassion isn’t mean as a judgment—it’s meant as a clarion call to how close—and yet so far away—this kind of pseudo-compassion is to actual compassion. We can be “idiots” about nearly anything, seemingly so close to the genuine action, but just enough off to cause some serious damage. I am particularly adept at idiot generosity—giving to someone in order to contribute to their addiction because we are too afraid to call them out, aka codependence.
Next time you are inspired to help, review these three near enemies in your mind, and ask yourself, as gently as you can—do you feel pity? Are you feeling overwhelmed? Are you acting with idiot compassion?
Any wall between the humanity of yourself and the humanity of the other being you are interacting with is not real compassion. We all need boundaries and breaks, but fundamentally, there is no separation. Make sure you, too, are vulnerable and real, when helping the vulnerable. Make sure you realize, express even if you don’t say it, that you, too need help sometimes.
At first it may seem like you are doing nothing at all—often, doing nothing but just being with someone in no matter what state they are in is all that is needed.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise