Wise Compassion

RubyandPearlsFor some time I have been meaning to revise an old blog post of mine called What Does “Too Nice” Mean?  I think the phrase “too nice” is an unfortunate one because I don’t think its actually possible to be so.  Kindness, thoughtfulness, and compassion are wonderful strengths and the world could certainly use more.  But, it is true that not everyone appreciates all forms of kindness and we can sometimes be unskillful in the giving, which can lead to problems in relationships.

When Compassion is Unwanted or Rejected

There are indeed some people who have a hard time accepting kindness from others.  They are embarrassed by compliments, they mistrust the motives behind a gift or favor, they don’t see any value in what we are offering, or they see openness and vulnerability as weakness. Usually these individuals have had some experiences in their lives that taught them to view things this way. However, when niceness is rejected by someone with this perspective, it is not the giver’s problem. Though they may or may not see it, the person who repeatedly rejects kindness from others ultimately suffers most.  So, there is no need to attach to this type of rejection when it happens.  The rejection does not change the intention behind the giving and you never know what beneficial seeds may have been planted in the process.

One question to ask ourselves is, do we have a true understanding of what is needed? Sometimes in our eagerness to jump in and help, we haven’t taken the time to get to know the target of our compassion, their history or their context. Do we clearly see our own intentions and have we thought through the likely outcomes? Have we considered first asking what would be most helpful to the person we wish to serve? When the situation isn’t immediately urgent, taking some time to look deeper is a wise approach.

Unskillful Means

Sometimes our acts of kindness are unskillful. One example of this is when people reflexively give after a crisis or natural disaster, reacting to strong emotion rather than thinking things through. In 1998 in Honduras after hurricane Mitch, supply planes containing basic needs like food and water could not land because the runways were choked with unnecessary donations like winter coats and stuffed animals. The unused donations eventually rotted and became a second environmental disaster.

Alternatively, we may actually be interfering with another’s autonomy by taking more than our share of the responsibility with our unskillful helping.  True compassion doesn’t discriminate – the giver and receiver are equals and nobody is viewed as more or less deserving or capable.  Therefore, there is wisdom in allowing others to make their own choices and follow their own paths, even when we feel they are making a mistake.

…participating in someone else’s unskillful actions does not ultimately increase their happiness or reduce their suffering…

Sometimes we are unnecessarily self-sacrificing in our compassion, neglecting to include ourselves in the circle of kindness and consideration we offer others. The body and the mind are the tools of human compassion.  If you neglect your body and mind and you get run down, sick or injured, you will not have the tools to help others to your potential. Therefore, finding a balance and engaging in self-care are also important. In the case of abuse, where kindness is met with aggression, violence or threat of harm, a zero tolerance stance is advised. Failing to protect your body and mind from unnecessary harm is a waste of all the good you can do in the world. Plus, participating in someone else’s unskillful actions does not ultimately increase their happiness or reduce their suffering. Remove yourself from the situation and consider your kindness unwelcome. It may be better invested elsewhere, or perhaps in another manner, or at another time.

Egoistic Compassion

At times, our acts of kindness are ego driven. We may not be consciously aware that we are giving with an expectation of return, such as appreciation, goods or favors, or influence of some sort. This type of compassion often leads to discouragement, frustration or anger when our expectations aren’t met. Maybe we are giving with the primary intention of alleviating our own discomfort with someone else’s perceived suffering. We may wind up giving something that is unwelcome when we make an assumption about what someone wants or needs and it backfires.  This can be avoided by asking permission rather than imposing.

Being skillful in your “niceness” means:

  • Having the courage to be open and vulnerable
  • Giving with the pure intention of contributing to happiness and relieving suffering
  • Seeing others as equals who are capable and deserving
  • Speaking the gentle truth and setting boundaries when necessary
  • Taking care of yourself and protecting yourself from unnecessary harm

Although it is inevitable that we will make mistakes along the way in our giving and helping, if we are mindful, flexible and open to new learning, we are more likely to be “just right” in our “niceness”.

If you want to learn ways to cultivate your strengths and make the most of your “niceness”, a mental health professional can help. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological AssociationPsychology TodayNetwork Therapy and GoodTherapy. You can also call the behavioral health number on the back of your insurance card or visit your insurance company website to get some referral options.

If you’d like to read more about compassion for self and others, check out the blog at the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, Kansas City’s premier mindfulness and meditation center.

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