Many of the letters Lori receives come from people who are in pain and struggling to understand a difficult episode in their life. But other letters come from those who love the person who’s in pain—friends, parents, spouses, and siblings seeking advice on how to support someone going through a hard time.
In many of these cases, what Lori lays out in response is a choice. As she writes to one woman whose friend is in an abusive relationship, “There are two kinds of compassion. One is what’s known as ‘idiot compassion,’ which is what we offer when our main concern is to avoid rocking the boat, even though the boat needs rocking, and which leads to your compassion being more harmful than your honesty would have been. Its opposite is ‘wise compassion,’ which means caring about a person but also giving her a loving truth bomb when needed. In the strongest friendships, wise compassion is highly valued.”
What is wise compassion? Lori guides many of these letter writers through establishing a dynamic that is loving and supportive—without taking away their loved one’s agency. “What he needs most,” she writes to one person, “is to be able to hear himself—not you—clearly.” The best way to help is to be a sounding board, Lori says, because, as she puts it in another column, “the most powerful truths are the ones we come to, little by little, on our own.”
The catch is that wise compassion is hard—as is being the friend, parent, or sibling of someone who is deeply hurting. To be a true support requires strength, patience, self-knowledge, and discipline. Lori advises many of the people trying to help someone to seek out therapy themselves. This, she notes, can have a dual purpose: not just helping the helper but sending a message to their loved one—that “we all go through difficult times and that when we do, we can empower ourselves by getting the help we deserve.”
My 26-year-old son has been through a lot. Is it possible to support him emotionally and financially while nudging him toward independence?
My sister is beautiful, talented, and successful, and I don’t understand why she’s wasting her time with this guy.
I don’t want to be cruel to her, but I cannot be her friend.
My younger sister is constantly anxious whenever she comes to visit, and I want to help without completely draining myself.
Her relationship shows all the typical signs of emotional manipulation and physical harm, but she refuses to admit that there’s a problem.
I’m not sure why I’m reacting so strongly to hearing about conflicts at school.
How can I balance her need for support with my own need for boundaries?
I don’t think a day has gone by that she hasn’t cried.
She’s been having anxiety ever since the pandemic began.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.