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Why We Tend To Confuse Compassion & Pity, From A Psychoanalyst

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW
February 15, 2020
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW
AEDP Certified Psychotherapist
By Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW
AEDP Certified Psychotherapist
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is a certified psychoanalyst, AEDP certified psychotherapist and supervisor, and licensed clinical social worker. She is author of the award-winning self-help book 'It’s Not Always Depression.'
Hands Reaching Out To One Another
Image by Garage Island Crew / Stocksy
February 15, 2020

Many times when extending compassion to a client who's suffering, my intentions get lost in translation. I've had clients recoil from my compassionate stance, explaining that they don't want my "pity." This got me thinking about the difference between compassion and pity and how extending compassion might be misconstrued as a negative event.

What is compassion?

Compassion researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D., defines compassion in the way I intend for it to be received: "You feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way," Neff said. "Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes rather than judging them harshly." In fact, the word "compassion" is derived from the Latin word compati, meaning to "suffer with." 

Finally, Neff said, "When you feel compassion for another—rather than mere pity—it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection are part of the shared human experience." 

What is pity?

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "To show pity for others is to treat them with contempt." To be on the receiving end of contempt feels very bad. Other ways to describe pity include sin, disgrace, and crime. 

In some dictionaries, compassion and pity are considered synonyms, making it easy to understand the struggle some people have with the word compassion. The question it often raises is "Are you looking down on me, or are you with me?"

Charley, a 60-year-old former client of mine told me in no uncertain terms that she felt my compassion as pity. "What does pity feel like?" I asked wanting to understand. 

"It's humiliating!" she responded, as though it would be obvious to me. I understood her anger.

Charley's childhood suffering and angst were met with contempt by her father, and she felt pitied by him in the worst of ways. Contempt is a universally unsettling experience that breaks the bonds of connection—in some cases, it can be a sign of psychopathy.

How compassion can lead to shame. 

Even a parent with positive intent may evoke a negative experience of compassion in their child if the parent's empathy is too intense or given at the wrong moment. This can create unwanted emotional exposure, which can be experienced as danger. 

Because the brain has a propensity to associate emotionally dangerous events with feelings of shame—whether purposely or unwittingly perpetrated—we remain vigilant for future interactions that diminish us in the eyes of others.

Shaming creates a sense of danger and ruptures connection. To humiliate someone is about as un-therapeutic as one can get. To make sure our compassion is received positively, we have to make explicit how we intend to make someone feel. 

How to get your intention across clearly. 

Compassion and pity both require an element of vulnerability, as a person is being seen in a time of great need. This can cause people to confuse the two reactions.

"When I share that I feel compassion for the younger part of you that was so hurt by your father," I asked Charley, "what is it like for you?" 

"It feels like you are pitying me," she said. "It makes me feel alone and judged. It feels like you are above me looking down." 

I agreed how that stance would make me feel unsafe and disconnected too.

Processing the positive and negative experience of compassion with my clients over the years, I have learned two main lessons:

  1. We cannot assume words mean to others what they mean to ourselves. We must define the words we use and the intent we have when using them, so both parties are on the same page. 
  2. We must be attuned to how another person receives our compassion looking for cues as to whether it builds connection or interferes with it. Interpreting compassion as pity often has roots in the messages we received from our family of origin and the culture in which we grew up.

Charley and I repaired our positive connection by understanding what pity and compassion meant to each of us. We continued to process the effect her father's emotional abuse and lack of compassion had on her. Eventually, she was able to receive my compassion and, most importantly, develop self-compassion instead of self-contempt for her suffering, past and present. 

If you're working on becoming more compassionate for yourself and others, try these three heart-chakra-healing practices.

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW author page.
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW
AEDP Certified Psychotherapist

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is a certified psychoanalyst, AEDP certified psychotherapist and supervisor, and licensed clinical social worker. She is author of the award-winning self-help book It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House, 2018) and has published articles in The New York Times, TIME, Oprah, and professional journals. She also consulted on the psychological development of characters on AMC’s Mad Men.

Hendel takes the complex world of emotions and makes them easy to understand for all. She offers resources on emotions, emotional health, and a copy of the Change Triangle tool on her website.