Compassionate Distance: What It Is, What It Is For And How To Apply It In Relationships

compassionate distance

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

However, an excess of empathy and compassion prevents us from being helpful to others. When we tune in too much to the suffering of others, far from seeing what to do to improve their condition, we block ourselves and make a problem that we should not take care of our own.

If we want to help those who suffer it is necessary to maintain a compassionate distance, protecting our emotional balance but understanding how the other person feels. Let’s see how to achieve it.

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 its name indicates, it implies compassion, providing support from understanding and empathy, but doing so with emotional prudence and preventing ourselves from being overwhelmed by the sadness, anger or anxiety of others. It is understanding others, wanting to help them, but avoiding turning their problems into ours.

Not knowing how to set limits to our compassion for others can lead us to suffer from empathy burnout syndrome. This peculiar condition consists of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion caused by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes for too long, feeling the same as they feel. Connecting with traumatic experiences of others always leaves a mark, an emotional discomfort that can corrode us from the inside

It is this same erosion of empathy that hundreds of professionals who work with people who are having a hard time experience. Doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists… all of them professionals who suffer the same as their patients when they tell them about their painful experiences. It is difficult to avoid it, because we are human and, especially in the caring professions, we are 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 your own. But, if we do not set a limit, if we do not apply that compassionate distance that protects us, putting ourselves in the same shoes as those who suffer too many times will leave us with consequences. Our mental health will be affected not by having experienced a traumatic experience, but by having tuned in to the lives of those who have experienced it.

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If we want to help others, we must learn to separate our own burdens from those of others It is true that empathizing and feeling compassion for other people is human, but it can be very ineffective if it blocks us by infecting us with their discomfort. On the other hand, when we manage to put an adequate distance from those who suffer, understanding how they feel but seeing it for what it is, a pain that is not ours, it is possible to give the best of each one to help those who need it.

Compassion and its function

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

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

Through his work, Gilbert came to the conclusion that Human compassion is an evolutionary advantage oriented toward a single goal: helping others For this reason, being blocked by an excess of compassion, or rather by an emotional flood, goes against that functionality. It is precisely in this situation where compassionate distance should act.

Understanding the discomfort of others without making it your own

It could be said that compassionate distance is a skill that acts as a regulator of our empathy. It is like a kind of filter that ensures that one of our most human capacities, tuning into other people’s emotions, does not take its toll on us and overwhelm us emotionally. Floods are never good, even those that happen in our minds.

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By applying compassionate distance we can understand the mental reality of others, since we continue to be empathetic beings, but without being trapped in their suffering This distance of psychological protection should not be understood as becoming cold, but rather maintaining, as we have already mentioned, a safe distance, enough to be able to see what is happening to another person and understand them but without their emotional pain affecting us. With it, we can achieve enough mental clarity to help those who suffer.

When people suffer, our personal drama can become a black hole that traps others. Compassionate distance avoids falling into such a hole, avoids being overloaded by other people’s emotions that can shut down our resources to help them. If we place ourselves at the same level of suffering as those who are suffering firsthand, we will not be able to help them. The same pain that makes them not see the light at the end of the tunnel will cause the same thing in us.

Emotional Support

The consequences of not applying compassionate distance

Compassionate distance is putting yourself in the other’s place, but without settling into their pain. It is totally normal that when a friend, family member or acquaintance tells us something that makes them suffer, we put ourselves in their shoes, but we must put ourselves in ours again. As with real shoes, wearing someone else’s shoes can hurt us, especially if they have holey soles. The consequences of not applying compassionate distance are all related to emotional exhaustion, being the following:

1. Post-traumatic stress

Making other people’s problems our own can make us re-experience their drama again and again We remember the suffering of others as flashbacks, despite not having experienced them firsthand. It’s a kind of post-traumatic stress.

2. Compassion fatigue

Tuning into other people’s feelings involves investing our cognitive and emotional resources. In other words, When we put ourselves in other people’s shoes we imagine what they felt, and that mental exercise consumes energy If we do it several times throughout the day we can fall into true compassion fatigue.

Furthermore, we will live irritated, sad and angry because of other people’s experiences. Negative emotions consume us psychologically and physically. The fatigue they cause will prevent us from making decisions and thinking clearly, in addition to the fact that we will not be able to concentrate well because we are constantly remembering the many bad things that may have happened to our close circle and that we now experience as if they were our own.

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3. Dissatisfaction with oneself

As we said, not being able to maintain a safe distance from the emotions of others can block us The main evolutionary task of compassion is to help others by understanding how they feel, but if we are not able to because we have been inundated by their emotions, it will be a matter of time before 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.

Keys to managing the suffering of others

The word compassion has several meanings. Each person can interpret it in their own way, although the most common thing is to think of pity, pity and kindness It is true that it has to do with these feelings, but when we talk about compassion from Dr. Gilbert’s perspective, we must assign it a more proactive definition, with strength, determination and courage, necessary to act helping others and be of true help.

The key to compassionate distance is connecting with the emotions of others without becoming overwhelmed by them. We can achieve this by taking into account several strategies:

1. Understand pain, don’t get it

Compassionate distance is understanding the pain of others, but not being infected by it It’s like taking a round trip to another person’s emotional reality, seeing what they feel but without staying there. His pain is not our pain, but we understand it and we feel it too. This way we will prevent him from blocking us but we will be able to help him by knowing how he feels.

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

We are not obligated to save anyone who is suffering, but 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 if we want to. There are things that it is everyone’s job to solve.

3. Apply emotional limits

A very good way to avoid being inundated by other people’s emotions is to apply limits. Clearly establishing which are the red flags that no one should go over when listening to their discomfort, it will help us prevent them from infecting us. We cannot be there all day at all hours for others, we have to set schedules of emotional availability.

The rest is time for us, moments of the day where we have every right in the world to say “no” when we don’t feel like listening to other people tell us their problems. We already have our own.