Compassion for Distress

Two men talkingSurprising Research Finds LESS Compassion In People Who’ve Been There!

A series of studies out of Northwestern University found that people who have successfully navigated a difficult situation actually had less compassion for folks who were struggling with exactly the same thing!

So if you’re looking for a therapist, counselor, or confidant to talk to about a difficult relationship with your adult child, don’t despair if you can’t find someone who’s been there. The research indicates you may be better off with someone who’s never experienced what you’re going through.

There’s a subtle but important point to understand from this research. Let’s take the example of bullying…

We know from previous research that people who’ve experienced bullying are generally more compassionate toward those who are bullied. Not surprising, right? They know what it’s like. They can relate.

But that compassion plummets when the person being bullied fails to overcome the situation. If instead the person acts out in distress, cries all day, gives up, or otherwise fails to succeed in spite of the bullying, their harshest critics will be those who were bullied in the past and survived.

The key is the former bullying victims’ perception that the person currently in emotional distress is failing to endure the bullying.

The researchers hypothesized that previously-bullied people either forget how hard it was to overcome and move on, or place too much emphasis on the fact that they themselves endured (so it must be do-able), or both. This combination of knowledge and experience appears to result in less compassion for distress.

More Compassion from Other Groups

Extrapolating from this and other research, the most compassionate supporters of parents with estranged adult children should be people who are currently experiencing the same kind of estrangement themselves; they’re in the thick of it and can easily identify with your pain.

The problem, of course, is that you’re talking to someone who doesn’t necessarily know how to solve the problem. They can empathize, but they can’t pull you out of the hole because they’re in it with you. (And if they get out first, they may lose patience with you if you remain stuck.)

According to this new research, the second-most compassionate helper will be someone who has never experienced estrangement from an adult child. Presumably, these helpers are in the majority.

Although counter-intuitive, this research seems to indicate that the LEAST compassionate helper will be someone who experienced the problem in the past, and solved it. While individuals will differ in their levels of compassion, these folks as a group came in last.

What Does This Mean?

I think this is wonderful news! It’s got to be easier to find a local counselor who’s never been estranged from an adult child before, than one who has.

So if you’re seeking support, your only challenge is to find a GOOD therapist.

Not an estrangement specialist.

Not someone who’s been there.

Just a good therapist.

Here are a few qualities of a good therapist:

  • Non-judgmental
  • Focused on you and your needs, not their own agenda
  • Interested in understanding you, rather than telling you what to do
  • Warm, kind, and compassionate
  • Treat you like a person, not something growing in a Petri dish

If you’re in pain over your relationship with your child, and your social support network has its limits, I urge you to start interviewing counselors near you. Look for the qualities above, not for a specialization in estrangement. Qualities are just as important, if not more so, than credentials.

If you get even a whiff of judgment or anything else that doesn’t feel right, keep looking. You can search for a therapist by zip or postal code at

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