Idiot Compassion

Notice the difference between acting with compassion and with idiot compassion...

Notice the difference between acting with compassion and with idiot compassion…

I first heard about “Idiot Compassion” from my therapist when I saw her about a week ago. She mentioned it in regards to a situation I was going through with someone, a situation that sparked my post about drama queens.

Idiot Compassion is a Buddhist saying, apparently coined by Trungpa Rinpoche, who established the Shambhala Buddhist training method and founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. In short, it means giving people what they want because you can’t stand to see them suffering. But this doesn’t mean you’re giving it to them because it’s truly what they need. It means you’re giving it to them to make yourself feel better. And by constantly doing this, you get stuck in a cycle of knowing you’re not helping the other person (because they probably keep repeating their requests/complaints), and you’re not really helping yourself either, but out of supposed compassion for another person, you stick it out until something snaps.

I say “supposed” compassion because what you’re doing is not really compassionate. In my situation, for many months, I was sticking with someone even though I knew they were manipulating me into staying. I knew our relationship was very unbalanced, and that my energy was literally being pulled out of me by that other person for their gain. I was certainly not being compassionate towards myself, and in a way, I also wasn’t being compassionate to them, because I was sticking around out of a sense of duty. I told myself, “I’m not that kind of person who just dumps people when they’re having a hard time.” But that’s not really being compassionate. You can’t always be compassionate if the other person is manipulating you, which is a form of abuse. Getting out of the situation, as Pema Chodron, another Buddhist teacher who studied under Trungpa Rinpoche, says,

…it’s the compassionate thing to do for yourself, because you’re part of that dynamic, and before you always stayed. […] But it’s the compassionate thing to do for yourself, rather than stay in a demeaning, destructive, abusive relationship.

And Trungpa Rinpoche has to say about this:

Idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good to somebody. Idiot compassion also stems from not having enough courage to say no.

In my situation, I knew it didn’t feel good. As time went on, it became a weight on my shoulders that I couldn’t shake off. I knew I wouldn’t be able to until I told this person to essentially get out of my life. This is not an easy thing to do. It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, and I’ve had to a few times. Once it was done, the weight did lift. I was looking at the world with a renewed sense of clarity, and, somehow, compassion. Especially for myself.

Idiot compassion can be looked at another way as well. Instead of sticking around with someone out of a sense of duty, you’re trying to be compassionate because it makes you feel better. Not necessarily just because you can’t stand to see them suffer as I said above. But, because it gives you a feeling of joy to help someone who may be less fortunate than you or having a harder time than you are at that moment in life. There’s nothing wrong with getting joy from helping others, per se. But it’s more of a compassion of the ego rather than “real” compassion. Another blogger, David Peers, mentioned giving money to an obscure charity, not knowing where the money will go exactly. But the fact that you did something feels good to you. The reality is probably that your money will go to either the president of that organization, or to buying new pencils for the head office. In the end, it may help in some small way, but probably not with the power you hoped it would.

Trungpa’s quote above says “idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good to somebody” instead of doing good for somebody. David Peers also writes, “Doing something to somebody implies that there are at least two parties involved and that one is entering the world of the other, largely un-invited and without permission. By our actions, our idiot compassion makes us feel like we are helping someone when we are not. Our true intention is to change them when we should be understanding them.” I think this is a very good distinction.

Therefore, Idiot Compassion is two fold: It’s putting yourself in harm’s way (be it emotional or physical) in order to have supposed compassion for another person who might be having a hard time. Or, it’s having compassion by doing things that seem helpful without actually thinking them through; a knee jerk reaction to a situation or person instead of trying to understand. It can be a fine line – sometimes, we understand how someone feels because we’ve been there, too. But we must identify where that line is, and whether or not we are going to cross over it into a dangerous situation where we are no longer being compassionate for ourselves.


***This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z April challenge. Starting with A, every post in April will be about a topic starting with a letter of the alphabet, consecutively. For more information, please visit the official page.***


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