Imagine someone extremely compassionate and you’ll probably picture a monk, a saint, or a wellness influencer meditating on a beach somewhere. What do all these figures have in common? They are all admirable (more or less), but they’re also removed from the hustle, bustle, and sharp elbows of day-to-day life. Compassion, as we usually, imagine it is incompatible with toughness.
That’s a mistake, according to a new article from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which argues that it’s entirely possible to be both a scrappy fighter who stands up for yourself and others in a rough-and-tumble world and a truly compassionate person.
True compassion isn’t all agreement and good vibes.
“The compassion-centered lifestyle sketched in breezy Insta posts involves attending idyllic retreats and practicing meditation. If compassion were a Pantone Color of the Year, it would be whispery rose quartz,” writes the Center’s Elizabeth Svoboda, diagnosing the limitations of the popular sense of compassion.
Both ancient wisdom and modern researchers suggest there is a grittier way to understand compassion that is better suited to our injustice-ridden times. Svoboda describes this as “tough compassion.”
“In the Buddhist contemplative tradition, the goal of true compassion is to find ways to promote the least suffering for everyone. In this broader framing, nodding along with someone’s bigotry, bullying, or falsehoods for the sake of preserving that relationship is the opposite of compassion. It interferes with peace-building on a societal level, even though it might seem on the surface like a nonviolent act,” she explains.
Compassion in this understanding doesn’t mean dissolving the world’s battles with love for both sides. It means taking a clear-eyed look at what the right course of action is for the greater good and throwing your weight behind it. It’s less meditating on a beach and more telling your kid to share their toy or your racist uncle to knock it off at Thanksgiving dinner.
In short, tough compassion is “the willingness to bear–and even inflict–some discomfort in the moment to promote longer-term well-being,” according to Svoboda.
5 ways to develop tough compassion
If this understanding of compassion appeals to you more than constant gauzy good vibes, how do you develop it? How can you balance the pursuit of long-term joy against the need to empathize with flawed human beings in the moment? And what does sticking up for what’s right with compassion even look like in practice? Greater Good has tips:
Focus on the sin, not the sinner. You don’t have to be at all religious for this distinction to be useful. Try to focus on disagreeing with the harmful behavior or belief, not the person. When calling someone out, “I try to remain accessible as a human being who can be vulnerable, who can be hurt,” Medical College of Wisconsin psychologist Zeno Franco explains.
Lean on stories. Bombarding people with facts tends to make them dig in their heels, but stories can change minds. Telling the story of how a particular action resulted in real harm is more likely to bring others around than hectoring. With stories “you’re really communicating–in a way that is enveloped in compassion–your fundamental boundaries, what you can and cannot accept, and inviting the other person into that conversation,” says psychologist Tania Diaz.
Remind yourself of the benefits of tough compassion. Showing compassion for those you deeply disagree with can feel like surrender. It’s not. “A lot of people have this misunderstanding that, if I engage or listen, I am somehow going to be tainted, or I’m going to be influenced,” Diaz says. “When you listen, truly understand, and get curious, it creates space for the person to think a little bit differently.”
Prep yourself. It’s easy to become a jerk yourself when the other person is acting like a jerk. To avoid knee jerk emotions getting the best of your good intentions, prepare yourself before tough conversations. “It can help to write down some thoughts beforehand about what you want to say to someone or the kind of stories you want to tell,” suggests Svoboda.
Walking away can be compassion too. All this being said, tough compassion doesn’t mean sitting around and taking it when someone is being rude or unreasonable to you. Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do for both yourself and the other party is walk away. “Exiting from a harmful situation can be its own form of uncompromising truth-telling,” insists Svoboda.
Interested in learning more? Check out the complete article.