Compassion & Responsibility – Finding the Right Balance
How can we navigate the challenges of caring for someone with a mental illness with greater wisdom and efficacy?
I wrote this originally for Eli’s Place – Learn more here – elisplace.org
When caring for a person with a mental illness, you will inevitably face an age-old dilemma. How do you balance giving them compassion for their struggle and accepting the tough reality that they are responsible for their recovery?
Let me clarify a few crucial ideas.
We must learn to:
- Take responsibility for our feelings, and not take responsibility for other people’s feelings.
- Take responsibility for our actions and not take responsibility for other people’s actions. Remember, no one can make you feel any way or make you do anything.
- Take responsibility to treat other people with dignity and respect while letting go of how they perceive or receive your actions.
These principles can guide us in difficult moments when caring for someone with a mental illness. It is important to remember you are a human and you are not perfect. We want to practise living in alignment with these principles, not with an expectation that we always fully live by them.
With that in mind, how do we understand our reaction to difficult caregiving moments? How do we work through them to live in alignment with these principles?
Understanding common words and their relationship to caregiving
What are Pity, Sympathy, Empathy & Compassion?
- Pity: A dose of ego gratification. It is the sense of being better than others when we compare our good moral standing or life situation to the person/object of our pity.
- Sympathy: Feeling sorry for someone and potentially expressing concern about their tough experience.
- Empathy: Feeling sorry for someone comprises two aspects: cognitive and emotional.
- Cognitive Empathy: We can understand another person’s situation through our thoughts and perspective.
- Emotional Empathy: Feeling the emotions of the person we are observing or interacting with.
Studies show that there is not a strong correlation between high levels of empathy and good behaviour. When our caregiving decisions are driven by empathy, we cannot respond in a manner that leads to positive outcomes. In these instances, our emotional instability drives our actions and decisions which often leads to prioritizing our own emotional regulation over serving loved ones.
In these situations, we cross into ineffective caregiving when we take responsibility for their emotions instead of our own. For example, someone is struggling with anxiety or paranoia and a reluctance to leave their house for non-essential matters.
To heal, reliable clinical guidance tells us this person needs to voluntarily expose themselves to their fears. Yet, we often sympathize with their worries, enabling their avoidance, thus making their recovery harder.
This is clearly unhelpful and is a paradox. On the one hand, our impulsive and often trustworthy instincts tell us to help this person and ease their present suffering. Yet, on the other hand, our rational mind knows that to change, people must face their fears and anxieties rather than running from them.
Empathy + Action = Compassion
Compassion is often described as: empathy + action = compassion. Empathy says “I feel you”; compassion says, “I hold you”.
Compassion is a choice that arises out of balance and present moment awareness. We can empathize with the person’s suffering, but recognize that we are not the cause, cure, or controller of it. Then we can take responsibility for our own struggle when we have to watch a loved one suffer.
From this balance, we can then make decisions that are in the service of this person’s ability to take responsibility for their own healing.
Instead of enabling the unhelpful behaviour, we could respond this way:
“Hey, to me, it really seems like you’re having a difficult time. It makes perfect sense why it’s difficult for you. I am also having a difficult time knowing what to do or how to help. It’s ok to struggle, yet it is not ok to continue this pattern because nothing will change.”
This is where we have to take responsibility for our own suffering, regulate our emotions, then offer a compassionate response.
“I am here to help you, although I can’t do it for you and I won’t contribute to making it worse. If you want me to help, then I need you to show a willingness to change your situation”.
Some of these thoughts often interfere with the process of allowing the person to grow and change.
- I will feel guilty and I don’t like that feeling!
- Doesn’t that make me a bad person for not helping them?
- If I don’t help them, no one will.
- I get a sense of control and pride out of believing that I am helping them,
- I fear if I don’t take responsibility for their problems, then I might have to look at my own…and who wants to do that?” (often an unconscious thought!)
These thoughts and patterns are completely normal. We are human beings and biologically wired to care for each other. This is a wonderful instinct and motivation — we also derive a sense of meaning when in the service of others. However, this is when we need to call on higher wisdom and act differently. Shifting in these moments and responding with boundaries and compassion can empower people and increase their sense of responsibility.
The Power of Compassion
Caregivers often struggle with boundaries, and our desire to help can cloud our judgement. This foggy thinking contributes to our impulsive reactions to the suffering of others and generally stems from too much sympathy and empathy. This is where we can insert compassion, the ultimate antidote to the fog of empathy.
Empathy says, “I feel you”
Compassion says, “I hold you”
Empathy can lead to poor decisions that might alleviate the immediate suffering, yet also contributes to the reinforcement of that suffering and ensuring it doesn’t improve.
People want to know they are strong and capable. Too often we meddle in the process that allows this to emerge in those we care for. We need to practise compassion for ourselves because it is difficult to tolerate these moments. When we can do this, the outcome for those we care for improves. It opens up space for them to see the capacity within themselves to heal and to promote their innate ability for resilience and well-being.
- Neff, K. Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook (p. 139). Guilford Publications.
- Rosenberg, M. B. (2003). Nonviolent communication: a language of life. 2nd ed. Encinitas, CA, PuddleDancer Press.
- Bloom, P. (2016). Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Harper Collins, New York, New York
Mike Stroh | Friend of Eli’s Place
Mike is the founder of Starts With Me, a consultancy specializing in K-12 education and workplace mental health. He is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) and sits on the Ontario Drug Policy Research Networks Citizens Advisory Panel and the Parent Mental Health & Wellbeing Committee for the Toronto District School Board. Mike has been a supporter of Eli’s Place since its inception.
Explore the transformative power of conversations surrounding mental health with Mike Stroh’s State of Mind mental health podcast, and his Starts With Me mental health YouTube channel. Dive into a wealth of valuable content that empowers you on your journey to improved mental health.
State of Mind Mental Health Podcast – Conversations About Mental Health that Change Lives
Starts With Me – Mind Skills to Increase Your Capacity for Well-Being