Insights into Psychology Series

What Is… Compassion – And Is Too Much Paternalistic?

Insights into psychology: is too much compassion paternalistic?

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is compassion.

I was inspired to write about this after my manager expressed her view that “too much compassion is paternalistic.” She’s useless in general, but I thought I’d take a look at why that statement is so messed up.

Defining compassion

Google defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” I’m not satisfied with that definition, so on to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Ok, getting warmer.

Next, I turned to the entry on Wikipedia, which I was less than impressed by. It contains the line “Expression of compassion is prone to be hierarchical, paternalistic and controlling in responses.” The reference cited is Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind, and while I haven’t read that book yet, I have strong doubts about whether it would be likely to include a line like that.

With a Google search, I found the lines “Because compassion is concerned only with the suffering of others and can operate cognitively without sharing the other’s experience, we think it is prone to hierarchical responses, that is, providing care or support in a patronizing way placing the giver in a controlling position over the receiver… There is a long history of more dominant cultures having compassion for those who are suffering and expressing that compassion in paternalistic and controlling ways” in Expressing Empathy (lead author Elizabeth Segal).

In Buddhism

None of this sits well with my own Buddhism-influenced views. From a Buddhist perspective, compassion has three elements: perceiving another’s suffering or need, emotionally connecting with the suffering need (i.e. empathy), and wishing to see that suffering relieved. Dr. Thupten Jinpa writes: “Compassion acknowledges the fundamental truth of our human condition that not all pain can be fixed.” It arises from a sense of shared humanity and shared concern.

Buddhist metta meditation involves extending the circle of concern, moving from wishing for the self to be free from suffering outwards to eventually include all beings. The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen involves breathing in another’s suffering (while visualizing dark clouds or smoke), then releasing it and breathing out happiness and good fortune (visualizing white clouds and light).

In other traditions

Compassion turns up in many other religious/spiritual traditions. The Christian Bible, in the book of Corinthians, describes God as the Father of Compassion.

In Judaism, Babylonian Talmud states “as God is gracious and compassionate, so you are to be gracious and compassionate.”

The Quran has only one chapter that doesn’t begin with “In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

Hinduism identifies both absolute and relative forms of compassion. Absolute is deserved by all humans, while relative pertains to the difference between those who’ve been wronged and those who have done wrong.

So, is compassion paternalistic?

And what is my conclusion? I think that people who are already inclined toward paternalism may offer quasi-compassion as an excuse to step in and solve problems the way they think they should be solved. While this may be presented as compassionate, the genuine sentiment is not there, as the paternalistic person is actually serving their own needs.

Truly being compassionate is not paternalistic; it’s held up as an ideal by multiple major spiritual traditions, and I’ll take that over paternalism any day.

What are your thoughts on the subject?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

13 thoughts on “What Is… Compassion – And Is Too Much Paternalistic?”

  1. Hmm, I think some people like to see paternalism and ‘privilege’ everywhere. Saying “compassion is paternalistic” sounds like trying to say “I don’t care about you” in a way that doesn’t make the speaker sound like a jerk.

  2. Ooo this is an interesting one! I’m not keen on what you’ve picked out from the Wiki article either, doesn’t fit with my thoughts on it. I include empathy, patience and a non-judgemental attitude with my view of compassion. The tonglen part was new to me so thanks for sharing – learn something new every day! 🙂
    Caz x

  3. I had no idea of the amount of disinformation there is out there about this word! What they’re describing is pity, not compassion. You have the right of it. 😎

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