When Our Compassion Fails

I’m working with a group of high school students on compassion. Last week, I asked them all to think about a time when they struggled to feel compassion for someone else. Three students shared their stories with the group and right away, I noticed a pattern.

Each of them was talking about someone they were in relationship with – a close friend or family member.

Each of them highlighted a situation where this person they thought they could trust seemingly betrayed that trust.

When I pointed this out, there were a lot of nodding heads in the circle. We have all experienced a time like that – an instance where someone who loves us and who we think we can rely on does or says something that makes it hard for us to do anything but react in anger or despair.

So do we have to have compassion for that person? There was a robust discussion about whether we are obligated in some way to see their side, to understand where they are coming from.

The short answer is, yes, if you want to remain in relationship with that person. It is absolutely necessary to try to move past our anger or disappointment and express ourselves with compassion in order to maintain a connection.

The rest of the hour was spent trying to figure out how we do that, and we quickly realized that one of the most powerful tools we have is mindfulness. Because practicing self-awareness and naming our emotions helps us to create a space between anger and action, it offers us a way to step back and begin to explore whether we can have compassion instead.

We ran out of time before we could begin to explore whether there are situations that come up where having compassion for others could put us in a more vulnerable position, where we can be betrayed over and over again. The only way these excited students would agree to stop debating that point was when I promised that this week, we will spend our time talking about compassion and personal boundaries, and whether the two are incompatible. (spoiler alert: I don’t think they are. In fact, I think that in order to have any self-compassion, we need to have strong personal boundaries.)

To be sure, there are endless more conversations we can have about compassion, and I intend to have them. For now, I’m thrilled that the students are leading the way with their concerns and ideas and that they are feeling engaged and excited about the work we’re doing.

Please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments if you have ideas to share!

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Kario

Writer, wife, mother of two daughters. Passionate about social justice, healthcare, and education.

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