Is Compassion Always Necessary?
For several months, I’ve wondered if I was suffering from compassion fatigue, common to many therapists. Then I realized that I didn’t lack compassion with clients who make me feel alive and who bring great joy to my life. As I thought more about what I was experiencing, I realized that I was feeling less and less for abusers in clients’ lives and in the world. I began to feel that it was okay to not feel compassion for people who cause suffering but weren’t themselves suffering.
I know we want to aim for understanding and forgiveness, especially those of us with clinical credentials after our names. The therapist’s job is to feel the pain of and with others rather than shrug it off or react to it. But, the fact is that compassion, defined by Dr. Kristen Neff, author of Self-compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, is meeting suffering with kindness, and I have come to the conclusion that many abusers aren’t suffering in the least. Rather, they’re making others suffer so that they don’t have to. Granted, it’s probably true that at some point in life, likely in childhood, they did suffer. Maybe they even suffered greatly. But they’re not suffering now, certainly not like my clients with trauma histories, who are dealing with their abuse, or like others here and around the world who are being damaged by abusers in power.
I’m tired of being told that I need not only understand people who do bad in this world, but cut them some slack. As a therapist, I comprehend why they do what they do—they were neglected or abused and therefore abuse others, weren’t taught how to manage their feelings appropriately, were coddled or treated like royalty and never learned how to play well with others, or grew up in a culture that is based on power and dominance. I get that all these experiences may have warped them emotionally. However, beyond this understanding, if they’re not suffering now but are causing suffering because they are willfully ignorant, narrow-minded, mean-spirited, narcissistic, or sociopathic, I’ve plum run out of compassion for them. Of course, the minute they start to reflect and feel pain at the harm they inflict on others, I’ll be right back in their corner.
A better person than I am might feel compassion for all who’ve suffered, but that has not been possible for me over the past several months, especially in our current political climate. My job as therapist and citizen is to care for those who are hurting, help them hurt less, and teach them that sometimes unwarranted compassion for others gets in the way of self-care—both mine and theirs. Sometimes, I’ve come to believe, we must save compassion for ourselves, which may mean limiting our efforts to feel forced kindness toward others who are intentionally, blindly, even gleefully hurtful to others. Although it’s crucial to understand why abusers of all kinds behave as they do (often because they can), I encourage all of you to think about who deserves your precious compassion (yourself and those who are suffering) and who may not (those who are making you or others suffer). It’s a fine but necessary distinction for survival.