Identifying Compassion: "Who's It About?"

Updated: May 22, 2020

I challenge you to see yourself in this post.... and reflect with self-compassion.

For years I considered myself one of the most compassionate people I knew (wow Julie, how humble of you??). I thought this because I always had a kind phrase to say when I sensed someone was suffering. After researching compassion for the past several years, I realized many things that I thought were compassionate, are actually quite the opposite.

The key to identifying compassion (or the lack thereof) is to very honestly ask yourself the following question, "Who is this about?" If something is truly 'about the other person', it can most likely be categorized as compassion. On the other hand, if some phrase or action is 'about me... and my discomfort'', it is likely not compassion.

Understanding this concept can be confusing so let me share a few examples:

Several years ago, I had a conversation with a physician who was caring for an eight year old little girl, Jenny (name has been changed to protect the person's identity), whose father had recently been killed by a drunk driver. During an appointment with Jenny, the doctor asked how she was doing... and how people were treating her since her father passed away. Jenny said that she kept asking people why her daddy died, but that adults didn't make her feel any better. When the physician asked Jenny to tell her more, Jenny spoke about two conversations she had with two different adults. These conversations went as follows:

Jenny: "Why did God take my daddy?"

Adult #1: "Honey, maybe it's God's will that your daddy is now in heaven."

Jenny: "That's so stupid; God doesn't want people to drive drunk."


Jenny: "Why did God take my daddy?"

Adult #2: "Sweetie, I think God needed another carpenter." (Jenny's dad was in construction)

Jenny: "That's such baloney.... God has Jesus and he's the best carpenter in the world."


My initial thought was, "hell yeah Jenny, you tell' em!" My second thought was "holy crap, I say stuff like that all the time when someone dies."

Statements like these are known as pat answers*. Most likely, all of us have said them; I know I have... hundreds of times. According to the MacMillan Dictionary, a pat answer is "an explanation that sounds as though it has been used many times before and is not sincere." Ouch! I think a better way to describe pat answers is that they are things we say, when we don't know what to say. In other words, we say these things because we are uncomfortable. It's about us and our discomfort, not about the person who is suffering.

What occurs when we provide pat answers is that we invalidate the other person's feelings. Though we may believe our intention is to help, in reality we are robbing that person of the space needed to fully express their emotions and grieve. In the end, it is only in fully embracing our grief, that we can begin to move through it.


*Other common pat answers said when people die (all of which I have said):

-"He/she is in a better place." I said this to my grandma when my grandpa died and she responded, "that's bullsh*t, the best place for him is in our bed, next to me!"

-"God doesn't give us more than we can handle." Explain this to my friend who died of suicide; I think she, and her family, would disagree.

Image courtesy of Robert Reyes