What gets in the way of compassion?

Many of us aspire to be more compassionate in our own lives, and to build a more compassionate society. In doing so, we work hard to overcome barriers that keep us from being motivated to help those around us—the overwhelm, apathy, and divisions.

But we don’t often think about the obstacles that might keep someone from comfortably receiving compassion. Yet research suggests that some people actually fear becoming the targets of compassion, and it may be hurting their mental health. Here’s why some of us resist help—and what we can do to open ourselves up to compassion from other people.

What’s scary about compassion?

A woman in a pink shirt gently supports another woman who appears upset, offering a comforting presence and a reassuring touch on her shoulder.
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A recent study published in the journal Mindfulness explores how the fear of receiving compassion can affect people’s behavior in difficult times.

Researchers surveyed 85 female undergraduates from a large Canadian university about compassion-avoidance, measured in statements like, “If I think someone is being kind and caring to me, I put up a barrier.” Those who reported being more afraid of compassion also said they were less likely to share their struggles with friends and family.

Why should this be a problem? Social support in times of distress helps us cope with and recover from life’s difficult moments. On a practical level, support can help us resolve or correct the circumstances that lead to the difficulties in the first place. One nationwide study found that lack of social support increases vulnerability to psychological disorders and disease, and imposes a risk factor to physical health greater than a lifetime smoking habit. Supportive friends and family also put the brakes on excessive self-criticism. We rely on others to remind us that we are safe, important, and promising—a critical aspect of coping. In fact, studies by the University of Derby’s Paul Gilbert have shown that self-criticism in combination with fear of compassion puts people at a markedly greater risk of depression.

Other research suggests that people who have a greater fear of receiving compassion tend to suppress their emotional responses to difficult experiences, a habit that is tied to cardiovascular risk and alexithymia: a diminished capacity to recognize emotions within oneself and in other people. Finally, fear of receiving compassion has been tied to lower mindfulness, a characteristic associated with myriad benefits to health and well-being.

Given the benefits, why do some people resist receiving compassion? 

Some worry that the other person will not respond supportively; they’ll reject or dismiss the issue. The situation may also arouse a nascent distress that comes from a person’s formative childhood memories of being ignored or treated with hostility, rather than compassion. For example, some research suggests that people who recall their parents as less warm have a greater fear of receiving compassion.

Even if support is offered, it may feel awkward, uncomfortable, or even painful to be under the spotlight of compassion. Receiving compassionate support may challenge a person’s sense of alignment with social or cultural norms around keeping a stoic grip on one’s emotions, or being seen as individually self-sufficient, “together,” or “low-maintenance.” Receiving compassion inherently involves an acknowledgment of personal vulnerability, which may make it harder to “hold it together” or (if things get emotional) add shame to the equation. Some may also avoid feeling like a burden, obliging others to waste their precious time and energy.

Finally, some people are less inclined to talk about personally humiliating or defeating experiences—times that feel like proof of our absolute failure. For them, disclosing these feelings feels too risky; they fear that sharing personal difficulties is more likely to worsen, rather than improve, how they feel. 

Do any of these reasons sound familiar to you? Keep reading.

The healing power of self-compassion

The Mindfulness study identified one way to reduce the fear of compassion from others: kindness toward yourself.

The researchers asked participants to write a paragraph about a personally unpleasant experience, one that they remembered as humiliating and shameful, for 10 minutes. They were randomly split into three groups.

Researchers told the first to think about their experience self-compassionately. Self-compassion involves relating to our own difficult experiences from the outside looking in, extending kindness and support towards ourselves as we might toward a grieving friend. The second group was instructed to think about preserving their own self-esteem as they wrote. The last could write freely, exploring and describing their experience in detail.

Participants rated how “upset” and “distressed” they felt before and after this writing exercise. The result? Those who practiced self-compassion seemed to feel better. The self-compassionate writing decreased bad feelings even more among participants with a high fear of compassion, compared to the self-esteem and free-writing approaches.

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This suggests that writing about a difficult personal experience through a self-compassionate lens may be more emotionally restorative than other approaches, including trying to preserve self-esteem or just letting it all out.

Could self-compassion also help people reach out for support, despite their fear of receiving compassion?

After the first exercise, researchers asked participants to write something else: a letter about their difficult experience, which they would ultimately share with another participant whom they had never met. Afterward, researchers claimed, participants would be paired up to exchange letters and discuss their experiences together. Before writing the letters, participants reported how risky it felt, in that moment, to share their story. (Despite this forewarning—perhaps as a welcome surprise—the experiment ended at this point: no actual discussion occurred.)

In general, the more fearful participants were, the riskier it felt to write and share the letter. But for participants in the self-compassion group, that link diminished. Thus, self-compassion not only lessened participants’ negative feelings in the moment, but also made a subsequent opportunity for self-disclosure seem less risky.

“Moreover, as self-compassion has been linked to feeling more secure and connected to others within one’s social world, practicing self-compassion might have led these individuals to feel safer, less threatened, and thereby more trusting of others, loosening the connection between their fears and the perceived risks associated with self-disclosure,” the researchers wrote.

To reduce fears around receiving compassion, people who are willing may also benefit from training in offering compassion to others. As former GGSC postdoctoral fellow Tristin Inagaki’s 2016 study shows, compassion decidedly rewards the giver, too. For others, treatments like Compassion-Focused Therapy may be the best approach.

The bottom line: Graciously receiving compassion is a skill, one well worth developing.

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