Idiot Compassion and Sentimental Grief

You’ve just had your appendix removed and a friend shows up at your hospital bed and begins to cry, saying, “This reminds me of when I had my appendix out when I was seven. Oh it was so hard!” and you expend the last of your precious healing energy trying to make them feel better. Or maybe you know someone who buys vodka for their alcoholic husband, saying, “But I really understand! I have so much compassion for him!”

On the one hand, it’s sentimental grief, and on the other, idiot compassion. Find out more about these two enemies true compassion, here:

A person who fails to note that he projects his own problems onto people who are suffering is incapable of providing effective help and can, moreover, easily drift into sentimental grief. For this reason it is necessary to make a clear distinction between our own situation and our own mental ecosystem on the one hand and the situation of a person we want to help on the other. Only then is sympathy and empathic understanding possible. When, reality-anchored and from a reliable subjective basis, we thoroughly apprehend the situation of the other, no despondency resulting from identifying with that other is possible.

Foolish helping, or, as some Buddhists call it, idiot compassion, is another distortion of true compassion. Through this we make it easier to get entangled in activities that will cause still further suffering. This is the case, for example, when we give alcohol or drugs to an addict, or cover for a criminal instead of confronting him with his situation. Such foolish help simply makes it harder for the suffering person to break out of the vicious circle of his suffering. Many “helpful measures” taken by people are foolish; the only function they serve is that of an alibi, by covering up guilt feelings and providing a distraction from the actual problems. Genuine compassion and understanding thoroughly and undistorted apprehends reality as it is.

Adapted from The Practice of Happiness by Mirko Fryba (Shambhala, 1995). Copyright (c) 1995 by Mirko Fryba. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala.
Adapted from The Practice of Happiness by Mirko Fryba (Shambhala, 1995).

20 comments

Jeremy Schanche
Jeremy Schanche3 years ago

Trungpa Rinpoche made a very valid point about 'idiot compassion'. However, the other extreme would be no-compassion - I s'pose real compassion falls not into either extreme.

Patricia H.
Patricia H.3 years ago

great article

Tamara Hayes
Tamara Hayes3 years ago

Very good article. I agree with Elaine. People need to learn to be better listeners rather than concentrating on what they want to say, they should just be there for the person and be open to allowing that person the opportunity to express their feelings. There does come a point when you need to realize that maybe someone is dwelling too much, and that is the time to try to be a positive influence and help that person move on from their dwelling by focusing on something positive. Of course it all depends on whether the person wants to be helped.

Martha Roberts
Martha Roberts3 years ago

i think it's hard to know the situation without being there. Having a similar expereince is part of being human and part of what enables us to sense others' feelings. But maybe a better approach is just to be present and offer the other person an opportunity to express their own feelings. They may actually be feeling great relief about their problem being resolved.

Elaine A.
Elaine Al Meqdad4 years ago

True compassion is the ability to feel what another is feeling. Either good,bad or indifferent!
Idiot compassion is the ability to enable one in their quest to destruction!

J.L. A.
JL A.4 years ago

good reminders

Michele Wilkinson

Thank you

Stefania C.
Stefania C.4 years ago

Hard to be always in the right emotion... Again it's easy to judge a situation when you do not live it. I prefer to have a sentimental friend than no friend at all !))

Alberta Daw
AJ Daw5 years ago

wounded people need compassion and non-judgemental listeners.
addicted people need cleansing and strengthening to fight the battle that will be theirs perpetually.

Bon L.
Bon L.5 years ago

Thanks for the info.