Are you too compassionate?

New research shows that overly-compassionate women are more stressed.

By Joan Borysenko, PhD for

When I was 40-something, our two sons were in the throes of their surly, rebellious teenage years, and my elderly mother was seriously ill. I was the filling in this parent-child sandwich—and my husband needed an occasional bite, as well. Meanwhile, I was in charge of research for a Boston hospital’s division of behavioral medicine and personally cared for more than 50 patients a week. Like many women stretched between the needs of kids and elderly parents, I was almost ready to snap. So why was I fantasizing about getting pregnant one last time before my eggs got too old?

I had to wait a decade for the surprising answer, but now it comes from a new look at how women cope with stress. When the going gets rough, women respond with a “tend and befriend” response, says UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor, PhD, author of The Tending Instinct. Tending, which is a hands-on style of nurturing, not only benefits others but also helps preserve the species in times of war and disaster—and helps women chill out. Herein lies the major tension in a woman’s life. We are compassionate both by nature and hormonal design, and we reduce our stress through caring for others. But pushed to an extreme, tending becomes its own source of stress, and we get overwhelmed.

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