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A New Paradigm: Compassion Failure

by Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD

A New Paradigm: Compassion Failure

I recently attended a psychology conference where the word compassion was spoken every few minutes. The speakers nodded to science, but their emphasis was on critiquing society’s lack of compassion – “compassion failure.”

The compassion paradigm has come to dominate the field of psychology.

It lures you in by invoking science and the greater good. After investing most of my life in this mindset, its flaws have become obvious to me. The compassion paradigm treats every mental health problem as a symptom of society’s failures. It presupposes that these problems will dissolve with “progressive” social change. But the compassion paradigm disempowers those it purports to help. It stifles dissent. It promotes greed. If you have aspirations about the greater good, this damage is worth a closer look.

The Compassion Paradigm

1. Disempowers those it purports to help.

You are condemned as lacking in compassion if you hold people responsible for the consequences of their actions. You are expected to see people as powerless victims of social injustice whose only hope is to participate in progressive politics. But the habit of blaming frustrations on society deprives you of the chance to learn from consequences.

We are meant to think life is effortlessly happy in a compassionate society. This belief system frees everyone from responsibility for their choices. When children are raised in this mindset, responsible habits never have a chance to develop. Children are taught to feel responsible for others but not for themselves. They are encouraged to do whatever feels good, and if that gets bad results, they are told: “it’s not your fault.” This denial of free will limits us to our animal impulses.

2. Stifles dissent.

If you question the compassion paradigm, you are labeled as one of the “bad guys.” Guilt about compassion is enough to keep most people compliant, but just in case you persist in your independent thinking, the compassion mafia continually ridicules designated bad guys. You know you will be ridiculed if you dare to question the premise that “our society is the problem.” If you persist in such heresy, you are shunned, and if that doesn’t silence you, the compassionate will attack.

Few people are willing to risk ridicule, shunning and attack, especially after investing so much of their time, money, and ego in a psychology career. Most people just accept the illusion that politicized psychology is “evidence-based” and serves the greater good. The energy that could have been invested in self-improvement ends up invested in hating the alleged enemies of compassion.

3. Promotes greed.

If you submit to the agenda, you are rewarded. More than just financial gain, you enjoy an exemption from close scrutiny of your work. If you are disloyal to the shared belief system, those rewards are at risk. It’s easy to justify your rewards by pointing to the greed of perceived enemies. The corruption of alleged bad guys distracts you from the corruption of your own guys.

Private-sector corruption has indeed permeated the mental health world, but public-sector corruption is colossal as well. Wagging fingers at the private sector helps you feel virtuous even as you participate in programs you know are wasteful and ineffective. You may even demand more funding for such projects because activism certifies your compassion. Any lack of integrity you feel is quelled by the dogma that “it’s not your fault–it’s our society.”

The compassion paradigm offers career advancement and emotional satisfaction, which makes its shortcomings easy to overlook.

What is the Alternative?

Mammals bond by focusing on common enemies. Gazelles stick together despite in-group conflict because lions eat them if they stray. Even lions stick together because hyenas steal their kill when they’re isolated. You have probably noticed how much people in the compassion world talk about common enemies. This cements alliances despite the conflict within mental-health professions. You are so trained to abhor “bad guys” that you are loyal to the “good guys” no matter what they do.

But letting a political agenda subsume the science of psychology does not serve the greater good.

I am not pretending to follow superior ethics. I have bowed to political correctness in the past. Now I regret my collaboration with the “blame society” paradigm. I am not sure what I could have done differently. I am not sure what you can do differently.

But step one is to recognize that this is happening. That’s hard to do, of course. If you acknowledge it openly your career is threatened, and if you acknowledge it silently, you feel like a hypocrite. It’s easier to believe that mental health problems will evaporate with a shift from capitalism to compassion.

Compassion is a template that highlights some facts and obscures others.

When you recognize the template, you are free to think for yourself. You can take responsibility for your actions instead of making blanket condemnations. If you do that, you will model personal responsibility for others. You may get condemned for lacking compassion, but if you bow to the compassion police for the rest of your life, you may end up with regrets. If enough people take responsibility for their wellbeing instead of just fighting “the system,” a new paradigm will emerge.

More on this in my books, Habits of a Happy Brain and How I Escaped from Political CorrectnessAnd You Can Too; as well as my podcast, The Happy Brain, particularly Episode 4.

After 25 years as a college professor, I know how hard it is to question the prevailing paradigm. No one wants to be condemned as lacking in compassion. It’s easy to ignore the template the way a fish ignores water. But now that I have retired, I regret my conformity and hope to make amends for imposing it on the next generation.

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