Therapy Blog

Compassion is not pity

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Compassion is often called the highest form of love. Pick any noble spiritual tradition and you’ll see compassion as a direct expression of love. Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so forth all teach compassion for all things and beings. It’s a beautiful teaching to practice.

But somewhere along the way, we got our wires crossed with compassion and pity. Pity is when you feel sorry for somebody. Even the grammar of “feeling sorry for” somebody highlights this. When you tell somebody that you are feeling sorry “for them,” the implication is that they cannot feel their own sorrow, so you’ll do it “for them” In so doing, you are depriving them of the confidence that you have in them to bounce back from their struggles. True compassion is where you can relate to what they are feeling, and have faith in their ability to recover; and yes, that can include with your support and guidance. But not with your pity. If you fill them with your pity, that implies their being pitiful.

Are we just splitting hairs here?

It’s a great question, and I suppose to a degree we are because we all know what we “mean to say,” and we tend to think that this should be enough. But remember, the inner dialogue that is constantly running in our minds is a large part of what programs how we see ourselves and how we view the world around us. When, over a lifetime, we get inundated with repeated messages of well-intended pity (feeling sorry for us), we begin to cooperate with this message and see ourselves as being pitied . . . leading to feeling pitiful. We are NOT pitiful beings! But the egoic mind is quick to scoop this message up and lull us into a depressive illusion. And remember, depression is a sick little magnifying glass that magnifies the worst and minimizes the best.

Now imagine how you might feel if that sick little magnifying glass gets a hold of a message like “I feel sorry for you.” Exactly.

Give the suffering the gift of support and confidence

Rather than expressing pity for somebody’s suffering, let them know that you feel bad about their suffering and that you have confidence that they can get through it . . . that their opening up to you about the suffering is already a step towards recovering. We need to put most of our energy into finding things that they are doing in a healthy direction rather than focusing on what sucks in their life. Recall that the mind does not work very well in the “negative” (I mean grammatical ‘negative’, not ‘good vs bad’ negative).

For example, if I say, “DON’T think about a purple elephant,” a purple elephant pops into your mind’s eye; in other words, your brain had a very difficult time, if not impossible time, following the direction to NOT picture that plaid elephant (see? Now it’s plaid!). Try forcing your brain to not invoke an image of what you say NOT to do. However, when I say, “DO think about a green cat,” there’s the green cat in your mind’s eye! The instruction TOWARD something is far more efficient than an instruction of avoidance of something.

So when you plant the seeds of support, confidence, and faith in their abilities, and point out evidence of them reaching out as a positive move, the brain has an easier time moving in that direction. This is where we get the saying that, “it’s tough to run full-speed ahead when you’re facing backward.” You go towards what you’re looking at. So help them see what they are made of!

So how do I get out of self-pity?

As with so many other thought patterns, mindfulness practice is a critical element of getting out of the pity-pot. Once you see the pattern of depriving yourself of having faith in yourself and therefore are increasing the likelihood of making decisions that increase suffering, you can begin to do something about it. At first, it’s enough to simply notice when it is happening . . . you may still suffer, and you may still sit on the pity-pot, but the more you see it happening, the more likely you are to begin to challenge the Emotional Confirmation Bias (pay particular attention to the Automatic Negative Thoughts section of that post).

Be as patient as you can with this. It can be a maddening process because we all want the suffering to go away yesterday. Whatever you are going through will pass. My dad has told me a million times when I’ve turned to him for support that, “It’ll all work out.” For a long time, I did not know what this meant because I was too caught up in my own pity-pot, but the seed that this message planted is the very foundation of my own mindfulness practice and my own freedom from unnecessary suffering. You are not in this alone, we are ALL working through our own pity-pots. When we leverage the discomfort that the pity-pots create, we are able to use that pain to motivate us to dig into our own forward progress.