The Myths of Compassion

by Dr Chris Irons, Director, Balanced Minds

 Did you know that lots of people have ideas about compassion that aren’t true? That there are common myths about compassion that get in the way of learning the benefits of being compassionate to ourselves and others? 

It’s no one’s fault when this happens, but at Balanced Minds we’re all about helping people learn about what compassion is, and how it can be helpful. This is particularly the case because, as experts in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), working with common blocks to compassion is a central process to what we help people with.

Myths are powerful things. Whilst they sometimes reflect ancient understandings about a phenomena, they are also commonly held but false beliefs or ideas about something. And unfortunately there are common myths about compassion – and self-compassion – that many people. 

In this post we’re going to look at:

  1. what the common myths of compassion are
  2. what compassion actually is
  3. what the reality of compassion actually is
myth compassion

What is Compassion? And what are the myths about it?

Compassion Focused Therapy

Think about the work compassion for a moment. When you hear this word, what does it mean to you? What synonyms come to mind that fit alongside it?

Often when asked this in a Compassion Focused Therapy session or workshop, people say some common things – compassion is similar to kindness, care, love, warmth, patience, being helpful and so on.

But many people also have some quite different ideas about compassion. Here, when concept is raised, it brings to mind vulnerability, weakness, making mistakes, dropping standards, letting people off the hook, or self-indulgence.

So how do we circle this square? How can compassion include both these positive and negative connotations?

Well, put simply, it’s all about what you understand compassion to be, how you define and describe it – and in CFT, we’ve got a particular way of doing this.

How do we define compassion in Compassion Focused Therapy?

In Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), the standard definition we use is that compassion is: 

‘a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a commitment to relieve and prevent it’. 

Whilst a definition like this is partly helpful, it doesn’t necessarily get at the heart of what something is. So it can be useful to hold in mind that this definition has two related and important parts  

The first part is that compassion involves being able to notice and engage with distress, whether that’s in ourselves or someone else. It’s fair to say that if we’re making contact with distress in this way, some of the mysconceptions about compassion – for example, that it’s weak – start to fall away, as turning towards painful things takes courage and strength.

The second part of our compassion definition involves taking wise action to try and relieve or prevent suffering, and often takes the development of skills to work with human distress – again, something that doesn’t really fit with a narrative of dropping standards or self-indulgence.


Examples of compassion that go against the myth

But if we’re really going to dig in to some of the compassion misconceptions, we need to have examples with provide a colourful, 3D contrast to them. Here’s a couple:

  1. Think of a nurse or doctor who was on the frontline during the early phases of the covid pandemic. In many ways, they are embodying the compassion motive – being sensitive to peoples’ distress with a potential covid diagnosis and all the fear and pain that came with that, and then taking wise action to do something helpful about it. If you hold this example in mind, can you easily find space for seeing this as weak, or dropping standards, or letting people off the hook?
  2. Think of a firefighter, running in to a burning building to save a trapped child. Again, this is a nice example of the embodiment of compassion – they are sensitive to the distress and suffering of the trapped child, and then using the skills they’ve learned during their training and experience as being a firefighter, to take wise action to save the child. Holding this example in mind, is it easy to find space for this action being linked to weakness, self-indulgence, dropping standards?

So what can we take from this? Well, hopefully these are helpful examples that may start to erode some of the myths and misconceptions about compassion. But is it helpful to go a bit further?

The many faces of compassion

One idea that I sometimes find useful – whether in therapy, teaching other health care professionals or the general public – is to hold in mind that compassion has many faces. Let’s take a look at this.

Imagine that a child you care for falls over and cuts their knee whilst kicking a ball around. They’re in pain, and crying. What might be a compassion thing to do here? When most people think about this, they think about how they’d want to get down to the child’s level, and with a caring facial expression and voice tone, validate the child’s pain whilst reassuring them that things would be OK. 

This might involve also giving the child a hug, or cleaning the cut and putting a plaster on it. So, this is one face of compassion, one way that it might show itself.

But now imagine that the same child – many hours later when they’re feeling better form their fall – is walking towards a plug socket with a metal fork in their hand. Would you do the same type of compassionate response here? A soft, warm voice tone and friendly facial expression, and convey how everything will be OK? 

My guess is probably not. It’s more likely you’d respond with a loud, assertive voice, and move very quickly and strongly to pull the child away. During this, there would be no warmth, gentleness or hugging, but instead all focused on preventing the child from being electrocuted.


many faces of compassion

Clearly then, this second example is a very different face of compassion, but it is still compassion. We are still being sensitive the potential for suffering, and taking steps to prevent it.

So we can see here that compassion can come in many different forms, shapes and patterns. Some versions may be soft, gentle and full of warmth and tenderness. Others are robust, assertive and strong. And of course you can get blends and mixtures in between. This is important because compassion sometimes needs to lead to being able to say no, to standing up for ourselves or others.

In a similar way, if you think about people you know in your life who are compassionate, or maybe someone well-known are seen as compassionate (for example, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama), these people are often seen as caring, supportive, kind and warm. But they definitely aren’t walkovers, weak, indulgent or self-pitying. In fact, these people are often described as brave, courageous and strong, who are willing to hold boundaries, push back against discrimination and confront injustice. Again, compassion comes in different faces.

All of this can relate back to the ideas in CFT, and in particular, that compassion is a motive, not an emotion. It’s not to say that compassion doesn’t come with feelings and emotions as it does. But rather, it can’t be reduced to a single emotion. So compassion isn’t always full of warmth, love, kindness and It’s not about likely, or kindness, or positive feelings. And although it can be hard, it’s possible to be compassionate to people that you don’t like, and even more, to be compassionate to yourself even if you’re also self-critical.


Myths vs Reality of Compassion

So, where does this leave us with some of the myths and misconceptions of compassion? Well, I hope it goes someway to helping to clarify what compassion is, and how it’s certainly not weak, self-indulgent or pitying. But you don’t have to believe me! Instead, look to what research has found on the topic. Here’s a few highlights:

Compassion Myth Reality of Compassion Authors

Compassion drops standards and let’s self and others off the hook for mistakes

Compassion has been found to be associated with:

·      greater motivation to make amends for a moral transgression

·      more time studying for a difficult test following initial failure

·      greater motivation to change a perceived weakness

Breines & Chen, 2012

Compassion leads to indulgence and letting self off the hook Higher self-compassion is associated with greater accuracy of self evaluation than those with low self-compassion Leary et al., 2007
Compassion is weak Adolescents higher in self-compassion are more resilient, and more able to bounce back from stress and challenges Bluth, Mullarkey and Lathren, 2018
Compassion drops standards/let’s ourselves off the hook Higher self-compassion was linked with increased self- improvement motivation in regard to future relationships among people who attributed responsibility of a romantic breakup to themselves

Zhang and Chen, 2017

So hopefully this article has been helpful in getting a better sense of what some of the myths of compassion are, but also the reality too. And in doing so, why it’s beneficial for us to find ways of developing our compassionate mind.

Dr Chris Irons, Director, Balanced Minds

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