For most of my journey through life and spirituality, I often upheld compassion as the supreme virtue.
From my Christian upbringing, I learned from Jesus the injunction to turn the other cheek, to forgive one’s brother not just seven times - but seventy times seven. I often thought about how Christ could look even into the eyes of Roman soldiers nailing him to the cross and say, with the deepest of empathy, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
When I dived into Buddhist philosophy years later, I learned that the essence of the enlightened mind is compassion. To have a heart opened infinitely wide to the suffering of all sentient beings. To hold the suffering of others, even the ones you despise or who have harmed you, like a mother would hold her precious child.
The ability to truly feel and empathize with the suffering of others is quite a marvelous quality in the human spirit. A world completely devoid of compassion would certainly be hell - a cold, heartless, and ultimately lonely existence. That’s certainly no world I would want to live in.
But even the greatest of virtues can possess a hidden shadow side. There’s a point where, taken to such an extreme, a noble virtue can cause more harm than good.
So what is the dark side of compassion?
I’ll speak from personal experience here, but you may see yourself in the following examples if you tend to value being a highly compassionate, kind-hearted person.
The times when I had an overabundance of misplaced compassion left me without the confidence to set healthy boundaries when those boundaries were truly deserved.
I became accommodating to other people’s needs, desires, and wishes to the point of self-abandonment and self-betrayal. I was particularly susceptible to this when I perceived that the other person was going through a hard time, a season of struggle, and therefore “needed my help.”
I would often “see the best in people” and focus on the “potential” for good buried deep inside them, even when all their current actions were harmful - to me, to others, or to themselves.
I made excuses for harmful behavior because of the difficulty of a person’s situation, or the pain of their past, or their traumatic childhood, or all the myriad ways they had been wounded.
Sound familiar to you?
Now, there is nothing wrong with feeling sympathy for the wounds of others and how their behavior has been shaped by their suffering. In the right context and at the right dose, compassion is one of the most noble features of the human spirit.
But compassion turns toxic, empathy enters into shadow, when it enables and excuses the worst of human behavior.
When it frees abusive behavior from any accountability.
When it absolves perpetrators of violence and harm from any responsibility for their actions.
When it convinces someone they must stay in toxic and abusive relationships because they can “see the good” in their abuser.
When it compels us to forgive the most destructive people in our lives, even if they have done nothing whatsoever to earn that forgiveness and may still be actively causing us harm.
If you try to solve every problem in life by asking yourself “How can I be more compassionate here?”, you will undoubtedly be a very nice person.
But you need to recognize that you will also make yourself a narcissist’s dream come true. You will set yourself up for being the ideal victim of manipulation and all manners of abuse.
Someone will be busy wrecking your life while you’re practicing a loving-kindness meditation for their wounded inner child. THAT is compassion gone wrong.
Is there a healthy counterbalance to shadow compassion, a way to bring compassion back into equilibrium while also honoring our rights to boundaries and self-respect?
In her work on archetypes, Carol Pearson writes about a pair of archetypal images that uphold a balance of loving compassion & fierce boundary-setting: the Caregiver and the Warrior.
When in health, our inner Caregiver is like an ideal loving parent: nurturing, kind, forgiving, understanding, and supportive even when we stumble and make mistakes.
But when in shadow, our inner Caregiver turns self-sacrificing, becomes a martyr, a people-pleaser, a codependent enabler of another’s worst behavior.
The Caregiver in shadow believes any form of standing up for oneself is selfish, is being mean, is betraying those in their “care.”
As well intentioned as those impulses may be, the Caregiver in shadow can use the concepts of “compassion” and “love” to keep themselves stuck in the most horrible and abusive of situations.
The antidote to the shadow Caregiver is the healthy Warrior.
Now, people who are naturally compassionate and kind-hearted often have trouble accessing the healthy side of their inner Warrior because they associate Warrior energy only with its shadow side: aggression, violence, domination, destruction. But the healthy inner Warrior is the part of ourselves that empowers us to stand up for our own needs.
To say a bold No when we are being mistreated or taken advantage of. To draw the sword of truth when we are being lied to. To set a boundary and ENFORCE it.
To say “You will never treat me like that ever again” and MEAN it.
To give an ultimatum and FOLLOW THROUGH if that line is crossed. To fight for the safety of your own being and the ones you love.
So many of the life coaching clients I have worked with have struggled with this task of accessing the energy of the healthy Warrior. Many of my clients - wonderful people that they are - have often felt so aligned with the principles of compassion and caregiving that they therefore feel a kind of guilt or shame for being a Warrior for their own lives.
But the Warrior spirit at its best is the spirit of the Protector, the one who provides safety to those they love. And no one is more worthy of your protection than yourself.
So if you discover that a misplaced sense of compassion has opened the gates of your kingdom (or queendom) to a manipulator, to a narcissist, to an abuser, to an energy vampire, to a person on such a downward spiral that they can only drag you down with them… it is time to call upon the good Warrior within you.
It is time to say No.
It is time to wield the sword of Truth in the face of lies.
It is time to slay a dragon before it burns your entire world down.
That, ultimately, is an act of true compassion for yourself.
In my work as a life coach, I feel a real calling to help clients with this particular work of learning to set healthy boundaries and become the protectors of their own well-being through accessing the energy of the inner Warrior.
If you are ready to put an end to patterns of people-pleasing, codependency, self-abandonment, and the shadow side of compassion, let’s set up a free call to discuss how I can support your journey as a certified life coach.
Together we’ll help you discover the Warrior within.
- Matthew Foley