Is There Such a Thing as Being Overly Compassionate? #1000Speak


February 20, 2015 by Katia

A friend who knows me like the back of her hand once told me that I had an uncanny ability verging on talent to see the tragic in every situation. To clarify, she wasn’t accusing me of being especially pessimistic, negative or a complainer, she was simply making an astute observation clear to her and myself – possessors of context spanning the last twenty years or more – about having an overly developed sense of compassion which constantly acts up. I am often reminded of that comment when I hear a sudden vulnerable stutter of uncertainty or self doubt in a close person’s voice or notice that extremely old looking couple on the street supporting each other, you know them, the old leading the old, and feel that familiar flare up.

I used to think that I was abnormal for experiencing that side of life in full volume. I know that my parents posses different versions of the same x-ray vision, cutting through the external fluff and looking straight into the heart of the matter, the soul.  But is it an extraordinary ability or a shortcoming? Do we really want the volume turned up on those aspects of life when there’s already The News and our own every day struggles and a myriad of other opportunities to feel bad? And does compassion make you feel bad or good, anyways? I don’t know. I struggle with answering these questions.  Even more so since adding my very own citizens to this world and observing them taking it all in.



Certainly capable of relating to the conventionally sad in ways typical of much older children, my five-year-old is also endowed with the ability to fully appreciate with his entire heart and whole being the sadness that is obscured to less sensitive eyes, that basement level sadness.

I think that I first realized it when my then two-year-old son burst into tears standing on his toddler bed and rubbing his eyes while commentating “that makes me feel GRUSTNAYA”* having just listened to Beethoven’s Für Elise on the musical book that my mother, visiting from Israel at the time, bought him as a gift. There had been numerous instances since where I witnessed, with a heart that sinks and soars at the same time, the workings of his own overly active sense of compassion.

I remember that time we watched Honey I Shrunk the Kids. I remember him watching the giant bee attack the kids and completing the plot line in his mind. I remember him bursting into tears of sorrow over the bee’s inevitable demise. Does being overly compassionate mean identifying with both the “good guy” and the “bad guy”? Does it mean understanding that sometimes this juxtaposition is completely artificial?

Should compassion be tamed if you’re overly compassionate? IS there such thing as being overly compassionate? Would overly compassionate mean taking in everything that merits empathy, pity, attention and goes by unnoticed, transforming yourself momentarily into a sieve thus recognizing, validating and honouring it as deserving of attention? Is that what being overly compassionate means? And does that frequent sifting eventually erode you, turning you into someone less capable of experiencing happiness? Maybe. Or maybe the ability to feel things deeply adds dimensions to your soul and enhances living. Maybe it makes you able to relate to literary characters more easily and experience the joy of reading in a more profound way. Maybe it makes your friendships and random interactions on the train, street, school, workplace more meaningful and fulfilling. Maybe it makes you see beauty more readily and take it in with more gratefulness.

Is being overly compassionate an innate quality or a learned one? Should I, based on genetics and learned behaviours, expect my two-year-old (who won’t stop asking “wot happen to Ben- wot happen to Ben – wot happen to Ben?” whenever his  brother is crying and won’t let any answer satisfy him until he’ll eventually walk up to him and place a worried, comforting hand on his shoulderbellyhead) to transition from regular healthy compassion to being overly compassionate? Should I tame his compassion? Should I tame theirs in attempt to save them from too much pain? Is compassion good or bad, anyways? And what about too much compassion?

Should I look inward instead?

Activate my own internal monitor and turn the volume up to scrutinize my own reactions. More carefully choose them. Decide that nature, something, someone gave my kids a blessed ability to feel things deeply. And just let it be.


* The conjugation into female form of the adjective “sad” in Russian.


This post is part of a blessed initiative 1000 Voices for Compassion conjured up by the wonderful Yvonne Spence and Lizzi Rogers at Considerings. Please visit their blogs and consider joining this huge campaign. We could all use more compassion.

The link up hosts are:
Roshni AaMom
Kristi Rieger Campbell
Crystal Cook
Erin Fangboner
Gene’o Gordon
Jen St Germain Leeman
Michelle Liew
Lisa Listwa
Pooja S Mulleth
Katie Paul
Lizzi Rogers
Yvonne Spence
Leah Vidal
T.A. Woods

24 thoughts on “Is There Such a Thing as Being Overly Compassionate? #1000Speak

  1. Lance says:

    I’ve struggled with co-dependency my entire adult life. I have sworn that I too compassionate. But three shrinks have disagreed.

    Our humanity defines us and fortifies us. The fact we are both passing to our children is a great thing.

  2. I don’t think you can temper that compassion. My youngest son feels everything so deeply that I worry about him but there is nothing that I could say that would change how he responds. I know this because he is just like me and feelings just bubble to the surface no matter what I try to do. When he was very young it was more difficult to watch because he would be so upset over things including characters in peril in movies, like your son. Now, at 14, his compassion translates into outrage on behalf of others which he then uses to make changes. He is always defending others and standing up for those around him who could use a little support. I wouldn’t change a thing.

    • Katia says:

      Oh my goodness, I love your son! I do see my son hopefully evolving into a similar personality in the future. And it makes a lot of sense that compassion will take a different form in the future.

  3. lrconsiderer says:

    Gorgeous and really thought provoking. We feel much because we care much. I think, on balance, I would rather FEEL than stop caring.

  4. Kristi Campbell - findingninee says:

    Katia, as always, you bring the big feelings and thoughts and wondering. I also find it curious that for the first time about three weeks ago, Tucker listened to music in the car and asked me to turn it off because it felt too too sad. I don’t even know what it was but I remember feeling proud that he identified with the music being sad.
    I think that your boys are going to be amazing and that them feeling so much compassion now is incredible. That Ben Feels the Feels? He’s going to change the world. As are you. ❤

    • Katia says:

      And as always you have the ability to put tears in my throat with just a few little sentences. That’s the power of compassion 🙂 I absolutely LOVE that Tucker responded to music the same way Ben did and like you I love, love, LOVE that he identified the emotion and I love, love, LOVE you for being such an important part of this extremely important conversation.

  5. I relate so much to what you’re saying. I’m very empathetic, as is my oldest. He’s only 6 so he walks through the world with his heart exposed for all to see. Being older (jaded?), I’ve created boundaries for my empathy. But compassion requires us to do something about what we feel, not just feel it. I think our hearts can break from feeling too much but what alleviates the pain is being able to do something about the suffering we see. Can there be too much of that? Maybe. I read a blog post yesterday where the person suggested that suffering is a learning experience and if compassion leads us to rescue someone, we take away their opportunity for growth. I’ve been faced with that dilemma so I can see how that can be true in some cases but I also think there’s a big difference between rescuing someone and giving them the tools they need to make better choices. I want my kids to feel deeply and for their hearts to break. I want them to experience that empathy. And then I want to show them what good they can do in the world with a kind word or gesture, with their friendship and with their unique talents. If we can do that, our children will have the tools they need to face an often frightening world and their strong empathy will fuel change. Much love to you Katia!

    • Katia says:

      I love how there’s always such a unique combination of soulfulness with common sense in your messages (I hate calling them “comments” because it’s so much more than that). As usual, you’ve made a great distinction between a sense of empathy vs. compassion and you’re right, compassion with its more active nature bears the ability to both alleviate the suffering of those in need of it and the pain of those wishing to extend it. It’s a very interesting observation that you mention in the post you read and again tend to agree with the distinction you make. I have to say that I love so much that this conversation is happening on so many levels right all over the internet right now and how exciting to be part of it! So much love to you, friend!

  6. melswopes43 says:

    Reblogged this on scribblemommy and commented:
    These thoughts are right on point. It’s good to have a compassionate soul.

  7. Not too long ago Christopher and I watched the movie Selma, followed by The Watson’s Go to Birmingham. One movie was about how Martin Luther King Jr was instrumental in blacks having a right to vote and the other movie was about how this northern family moved back to Birmingham for the summer and how much different things were in the south than in the north. In both movies it re-enacted the church bombing that killed four girls. He didn’t cry but he was horrified and I almost felt bad for showing him the movies but I felt it was time for him to really learn parts of that history. On another note to lighten up my comment, when my parents took us to see E.T. I think my brother was about four years old. He cried SOOOOOO hard at the end of the movie when E.T. died that my daddy had to take him out of the theatre. So I don’t think he got to see the part where E.T. came back to life. We like to laugh about that memory. In general we are an emotional family, with things easily bringing us to tears. Loved your post.

  8. Natalie DeYoung says:

    “I used to think that I was abnormal for experiencing that side of life in full volume”–me too. I struggle with the “too much” compassion gene. Also, that phrase, “basement level sadness” strikes a familiar chord in me.
    As always, your gift for words has left me feeling all the feelings.

  9. roweeee says:

    Hi Katia,
    Thank you so much for sharing this very sensitive, moving and thought-evoking post. My son re like you and your son. I often feel like we wear our feelings on the outside without any form of exoskeleton to protect us. At times, these feelings have immobilised me to the point where I’m no use to anyone. I can’t see the point of that. So for me, I try to convert those feelings into some sort of action be that cooking a meal, prayer, writing a letter or note and that ehlps someone else but could even be helping me more.
    I don’t know if you have ever read a book called: “Letters to Sam”? It was written by a Jewish psychiatrist who became a paraplegic and the letters are addressed to his grandson, Sam who get diagnosed with mild autism in the course of the book. One of my favourite ever books.
    I wrote on a similar topic but from a humorous perspective about compassion fatigue:
    I hope you don’t mind that I pinched your links to the organisers blogs. You saved me the effort. Thanks.
    xx Rowena

    • Katia says:

      Hi Rowena

      So wonderful to get such a thoughtful and thought provoking comment. I loved the exoskeleton analogy. I find it very accurate. I haven’t read letters to Sam, bit I’m going to want to! I look forward to reading some more of your perspective on this. 🙂 thank you ever so much for stopping by!

  10. amycake76 says:

    I don’t think I have it, but I think it’s more genetic than learned. Not that it can’t be learned to an extent. Some people (and I’ve known them) just feel more for others. I’m glad we have them (and you), but I’m sorry for the burden.

  11. Stephanie Sprenger says:

    Oh, my friend, what a gift to read your words again. I too am “overly compassionate” and so is my oldest child. We are true empaths, and it is a painful way to live sometimes. But if I could turn it off, I wouldn’t. And I love that quality in you, too. xoxo

  12. It’s important to feel a connectedness with those around you, but balance it so that one’s empathy can be purposeful. I believe that compassion is action: one can demonstrate compassion just the way that your son does by rubbing his brother’s tummy when he is feeling bad. Taking small actions like that isn’t being compassionate in any negative way — it is exploring a fuller extent of human feelings. Thanks for sharing this — overcompassion is something that I haven’t really thought about!

  13. Your questions really got me thinking. And I have come to the conclusion that it’s a good thing to be over compassionate. Especially if you’re a boy. That’s a gift really. I think it leads to a richer, more aware, more involved life. I was fascinated to see Stephanie’s comment that she wouldn’t turn it off even if she could. I vote that you ” … just let it be.”

  14. Roshni says:

    I feel like it should be a wonderful quality to possess but if it really affects you and your child, then perhaps it is more a burden than a gift! 😦

  15. yvonne says:

    I’m working my way through as many of the #1000Speak posts as I can, and am delighted to have got to yours Katia. It’s very thought-provoking and I can relate to so much of it. I used to feel that I was too “sensitive” which is, I think, similar to what you are saying here. I love Karen @ mended musings comment about taking action – I do think it’s a component of compassion.

    I think I’ve said before that your older son seems similar to my older daughter. When I took her for vaccinations at 4 months, the baby next to her cried, so she looked for a moment, and started crying too. As a toddler, she couldn’t bear the Snow White story because the version we had started with the mother still alive and dying. She was 5 when I discovered a book, “The Highly Sensitive Child” by Elaine Aron. There is some scientific evidence that between 10 – 20% of all species (not just humans) are more sensitive than others – even fruit flies. We need both highly sensitive and less sensitive members of every species to ensure survive. I remember an example Aron gave was of a deer that is more sensitive being more alert to danger so acting as a scout for the others – being highly sensitive myself, I remember that, but can’t remember the benefit of the non-sensitive deer!!
    The whole nature-nurture aspect of this is really interesting. It’s pretty much accepted now that although we do have genetic differences, whether these get “turned on” or not depends largely on our environment. I read recently about research that had found a particular set of genes are prevalent in murderers, but the report’s author also tested positive for these genes! It turned out that an abusive childhood was what made the difference to whether people with those genes went on to murder or not.
    So, I’m very much inclined to agree with your last paragraph, particularly: “Decide that nature, something, someone gave my kids a blessed ability to feel things deeply. And just let it be.”

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