Compassionate Distance: What It Is, What It Does, and How to Apply It in Relationships

When someone is in pain, it is almost inevitable to tune into the pain. People are empathetic by nature and thanks to this we can live in society, help each other.

However, an excess of empathy and compassion prevents us from being useful to others. When we become too sensitive to the suffering of others, far from seeing what to do to improve their condition, we get bogged down and we make our own a problem that we should not take care of.

If we want to help those who suffer you have to keep a compassionate distance, protecting our emotional balance but understanding how the other is feeling. Let’s see how.

    What is Compassionate Distance?

    Compassionate distance can be understood as place ourselves in a psychological space of protection, where it will be easier for us to avoid being impregnated by the emotions of others.

    As the name suggests, it involves compassion, offering support through understanding and empathy, but doing so with emotional caution and preventing us from being overwhelmed by sadness, anger or anxiety. others. It’s understanding others, wanting to help them, but avoiding making their problems our own.

    Not knowing how to set limits on our compassion for others can cause us to suffer from empathy fatigue syndrome. This particular condition consists of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion caused by spending too much time in the place of others, feeling the same as them. Connecting with the traumatic experiences of others always leaves a mark, an emotional discomfort that can corrode us inside..

    It is this same wear and tear on empathy that hundreds of professionals who work with people who are going through a bad time experience. Doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists… all professionals who suffer like patients when we tell them about their painful experiences. It’s hard to avoid, as we are human and, especially in the care professions, it is in tune with the emotions of others.

    It is almost impossible not to identify with the suffering of others to the point of feeling it as one’s own. But if we don’t put limits on it, if we don’t apply this compassionate distance that protects us, putting ourselves too often in the place of those who suffer will leave us with scars. Our mental health will be affected not by having lived a traumatic experience, but by being attentive to the life of those who lived it.

    If we want to help others, we must learn to separate our own burdens from those of others.. It is true that showing empathy and feeling compassion for others is human, but it can be very ineffective if it prevents us from being infected by their discomfort. Instead, when we manage to put an adequate distance with the person who suffers, understanding what he feels but seeing him as he is, a pain that is not ours, it is possible to give the best of everyone to help those in need.

      Compassion and its function

      There are people who, faced with the pain of others, are completely paralyzed. People can become very sensitive, so much so that we experience in our own flesh the pain, the fear, the suffering and, in general, the discomfort of those who are the true victims of misfortune. The emotional pain caused by empathy is so intense that it is difficult for us to react.

      The ability to empathize with the suffering of others, whether physical or emotional, is a process that can switch off our reason. It is difficult for us to think coldly and rationally, even if misfortune does not accompany us. Experiencing this is not useful at all because it prevents us both from continuing with our lives and from helping those who need our help. In this regard, we can talk about the research carried out by Dr. Paul Gilbert, from the Mental Health Department of Kingsway Hospital in Derby (England).

      With his work, Gilbert came to the conclusion that human compassion is an evolutionary advantage with a single purpose: to help others. Therefore, being blocked by an excess of compassion, or rather by an emotional flood, goes against this functionality. It is precisely in this situation that the compassionate distance must act.

      Understand the discomfort of others without making it your own

      You could say that compassionate distance is a skill that acts as a regulator of our empathy. It’s like a sort of filter that makes one of our most human abilities, listening to other people’s emotions, not giving us a bad bill and emotionally inducing us. Floods are never good, even those that occur in our minds.

      By applying compassionate distance, we can understand the mental reality of others, as we remain empathic beings, but without being caught up in suffering.. This psychological protective distance should not be understood as becoming cold, but it must be maintained, as we have already mentioned, a careful distance, sufficient to be able to see what is happening to another person and understand it but without splashing ourselves your emotional pain. With it, we will be able to obtain enough mental clarity to help those who suffer.

      When people are hurting, our personal drama can turn into a black hole that catches others. Compassionate distance avoids falling into this hole, avoids being overwhelmed by the emotions of others that can deactivate our resources to help them. If we are on the same level of suffering as those who suffer first hand, we will not be able to help them. The same pain that prevents them from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel will cause us the same.

        The consequences of not applying compassionate distance

        Compassionate distance is about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, without settling into pain. It’s only normal that when a friend, family member or acquaintance tells us something that hurts them, we put our shoes back on, but we have to put ours back on. As with real shoes, wearing someone else’s shoes can hurt us, especially if they have punctured soles. The consequences of not applying compassionate distance are all related to emotional attrition, being the following:

        1. Post-traumatic stress

        Owning other people’s problems can make us relive their drama over and over again. We remember the suffering of others in flashbacks, even if we haven’t experienced them in the first person. It’s a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.

          2. Compassion fatigue

          Listening to the feelings of others involves investing our cognitive and emotional resources. In other words, when we put ourselves in other people’s shoes, we imagine what it was like to feel it, and this mental exercise consumes energy. If we do this several times a day, we risk falling into real compassion fatigue.

          Moreover, we will live irritated, sad and angry because of the experiences of others. Negative emotions consume us psychologically and physically. The fatigue they cause will prevent us from making decisions and thinking clearly, and we will not be able to concentrate well to remember all the time the many bad things that may have happened to them in our immediate surroundings and which we are now experiencing as if they were ours. .

          3. Self dissatisfaction

          As we said, not being able to keep a safe distance from the emotions of others can block us. The main evolutionary task of compassion is to help others understand how they feel, but if we are unable to do this because we have been overwhelmed by their emotions, it will only be a matter of time before that we feel deeply dissatisfied with ourselves. We will feel that we are not helping anyone, that we are not good people or that we are useless.

            The keys to managing the suffering of others

            The word compassion has several meanings. Each no one can interpret it in their own way, although the most common is to think of pity, pity and kindness.. Granted, it has to do with those feelings, but when we talk about compassion from Dr. Gilbert’s perspective, we need to define it more proactively, with the strength, determination and courage to help others and be true. . to help.

            The key to compassionate distance is to connect with the emotions of others without being overwhelmed by them. We can achieve this by considering several strategies:

            1. Understand the pain, don’t engage in it

            Compassionate distance is about understanding the pain of others, but not indulging in it. It’s like going back and forth to their emotional reality as another person, seeing how they feel but not staying. His pain is not our pain, but we understand it and feel it too. This will prevent it from blocking us but we can help you by knowing what it does.

            2. We cannot save others, but we can accompany them

            We are not obligated to save anyone who suffers, however it is humanly desirable to accompany him in his pain. Compassionate distance involves being aware that it is not our job to bear the heavy pain of others. We cannot solve problems that are not ours, not even voluntarily. There are things that everyone has to solve.

            3. Apply emotional boundaries

            A great way to avoid being overwhelmed by other people’s emotions is to set boundaries. Clearly establish red flags that no one should cross by listening to their discomfort, will help us to avoid being infected. We cannot be all day at all times for others, we must establish schedules of emotional availability.

            The rest is time for us, times of the day when we have every right to say “no” when we don’t want to hear others tell us about their problems. We already have ours.

            Bibliographic references

            • Catarino, F., Gilbert, P., McEwan., K and Baião, R. (2014). Motivations for compassion: distinguishing submissive from genuine compassion and its association with shame, submissive behavior, depression, anxiety, and stress Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33, 399-412.
            • Gilbert. P. (2015). The evolution and social dynamics of compassion Journal of Social & Personality Psychology Compass, 9, 239–254. DOI: 10.1111/spc3.12176
            • Gilbert, P. (2017). Compassion as a social mindset: an evolutionary approach. A: P. Gilbert (ed.). Compassion: concepts, research and applications. (pp. 31-68). London: Routledge
            • Heriot-Maitland C, McCarthy-Jones S, Longden E, Gilbert P. Compassionate approaches to working with distressing voices. Frontal psychology. February 1, 2019; 10:152. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00152. PMID: 30774614; PMCID: PMC6367219.
            • Lucre K, Clapton N. The compassionate kitbag: a creative and integrative approach to compassion-centered therapy. Psychologist Psychologist. April 2021; 94 Suppl 2: 497-516. doi:10.1111/pap.12291. Published online July 8, 2020. PMID: 32639097.
            • Mascaro, JS, Florian, MP, Ash, MJ, Palmer, PK, Frazier, T., Condon, P. and Raison, C. (2020). Ways to experience compassion: How do we come to know, understand and measure compassion when we see it? Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 547241.

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