Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Idiot compassion

I want to share with you some more from Pema Chödrön's teachings - this time on something called "idiot compassion". This is the sort of behavior that you tell yourself is compassionate but actually it hurts either you or the person you believe you are helping. Here's what she has to say about it:
Idiot compassion is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it's whats called enabling. It's the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering. Basically, you're not giving them what they need. You're trying to get away from your feeling of I can't bear to see them suffering. In other words, you're doing it for yourself. You're not really doing it for them.

When you get clear on this kind of thing, setting good boundaries and so forth, you know that if someone is violent, for instance, and is being violent towards you —to use that as the example— it's not the compassionate thing to keep allowing that to happen, allowing someone to keep being able to feed their violence and their aggression. So of course, they're going to freak out and be extremely upset. And it will be quite difficult for you to go through the process of actually leaving the situation. But that's the compassionate thing to do.

It's the compassionate thing to do for yourself, because you're part of that dynamic, and before you always stayed. So now you're going to do something frightening, groundless, and quite different. But it's the compassionate thing to do for yourself, rather than stay in a demeaning, destructive, abusive relationship.

And it's the most compassionate thing you can do for them too. They will certainly not thank you for it, and they will certainly not be glad. They'll go through a lot. But if there's any chance for them to wake up or start to work on their side of the problem, their abusive behavior or whatever it might be, that's the only chance, is for you to actually draw the line and get out of there.
I think idiot compassion stems from a kind of spiritual laziness. We do the easy thing rather than the hard thing and then we delude ourselves by believing we are helping. I think it is safe to say that idiot compassion always involves some kind of boundary eroision.


  1. I've seen too many people who go around pretending to be altruistic who are actually doing things to get a payoff of some kind, emotional or physical.

    I hate to say this for I'm sure I'll be misunderstood, but I don't believe anyone does anything except from selfish motives, but can that be all bad, when one considers that The Golden Rule can be applied here? Richard Dawkins teases out these considerations of "altruism" in his book, The Selfish Gene.

  2. Certainly there is a pay off from doing anything - if only the knowledge that one has done the right thing. There's no such thing as a pure motive. That doesn't mean, however, that everybody's pretending when engaged in altruistic endeavors. What's important is the development of a mature conscience. And we can help ourselves in that regard by being committed to authentic compassion - for ourselves and for others.


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