3 Common Mistakes That Get in the Way of Showing Effective Compassion to Your Friends

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Working to be a more compassionate human being is a worthy endeavor that stands to improve all your relationships—including your relationship with yourself. But while being able to act with grace and let others down easy when necessary may be hallmark qualities of compassion, the term is, in effect, much more nuanced and not always positive. For example, consider the difference between idiot compassion and wise compassion. Unsurprisingly, one is more preferable to call upon than the other with regard to our relationships.

Idiot compassion is essentially the idea of acting in a way that won't rock the boat (even when the boat needs rocking). If you're known to, for instance, brush things "under the rug" because you hate confrontation, turning to idiot compassion might be tempting. But, according to experts, this practice opens up our relationships to more hurt than speaking from a place of honesty would. On the contrary, leaning on wise compassion more so reflects an ethos of coming from a place of radical truth.

Experts In This Article

To learn how to lean more toward wise compassion and abandon idiot-compassion inclinations in my friendships, I consulted therapists for top signs of idiot compassion they hope people can avoid. Below, get more detail about what exactly idiot compassion looks like, and how to approach various situations more effectively.

3 common signs of idiot compassion—and how to adopt wise compassion instead

1. Not having the hard conversations

Have you ever been worried about a friend’s well being? Regardless of what originally caused your concern, though, you may not feel comfortable speaking up about it, whether because you don't know what to say, you don’t think it’s your place, you don’t want to upset them, or any other reason. While all of this is understandable, though, staying quiet is nonetheless not helpful.

“Unfortunately, by noticing this and avoiding the conversation, your friend may continue to engage in the behaviors,” says therapist Leanna Stockard, LMFT.

The wiser solution: Share your concerns, coming from a place of compassion. “While it is the more difficult option, the wiser choice would be confronting your friend about your concerns and taking the risk of a negative response to not encourage this behavior to continue,” Stockard says.

You could say something like, “I’ve noticed this is happening, and I’m worried about you. Is everything okay? How can I help?”

2. Always giving a free pass for questionable behavior

When your friend does something that bothers you, like interrupting, or saying something thoughtless, you may not want to bring it up every time. After all, they're your friend, so they surely don't mean to hurt you. Right? The compassionate thing to do might feel like just letting it go and giving your friend the benefit of the doubt, but the best way to proceed with wise compassion is to speak up for yourself.

“On the surface, it seems like you’re being polite by letting problems slide, but if we look closer, all parties suffer from ignoring problems." —Willow Goldfarb, LMHC

While your friend may have the best of intentions, continuing to let them run over your feelings probably isn’t your best option. “On the surface, it seems like you’re being polite by letting it slide, but if we look closer, all parties suffer from ignoring this problem,” says therapist Willow Goldfarb, LMHC.

The wiser solution: Address the concern appropriately. “Ask yourself, what action would help resolve this distress long-term and aid in the betterment of the situation,” Goldfarb says. This might look like appreciating the person’s good intentions, mentioning the concern, then keeping the conversation moving.

“You’ve then shown compassion for yourself by speaking up, compassion for the interrupting party by helping them develop their self-awareness without alienating them, and for the group in two ways: by modeling how to address the problem behavior respectfully, and showing them that even if a hiccup happens, the meeting can easily be brought back to the message,” she says.

 3. Providing support—no matter what

Always advocating for your friend doesn't mean supporting them in a behavior or mindset that’s damaging to their career, other relationships, or life in general. “We love our friends, and want to be there for them,” Stockard says. “Sometimes challenging their decisions, as opposed to supporting everything they do, is the best way to show them compassion.”

For example, consider that your friend starts dating one of your other friend’s exes, and you don’t think it’s a good idea. “Ultimately, this decision can hurt your other friend, and even hurt the relationship dynamic between you all,” Stockard says. Beyond that issue of your group dynamic being at risk, not warning your friend of any red flags of the ex stands to hurt them, too.

The wiser solution: Be upfront with your friend. Tell them you don’t agree, and explain how it could hurt them and other people, Stockard says. “They might not like what you have to say at first, but by providing them with wise compassion, they may be able to see the repercussions of their decisions and start thinking about how their decisions impact others.”

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