How to Show ‘Wise Compassion’ to Struggling Loved Ones

Being truly supportive of someone who is in pain requires strength, patience, self-knowledge, and discipline, “Dear Therapist” writes.

illustration of someone reaching out for help
Bianca Bagnarelli
Editor’s Note: With Lori Gottlieb on book leave, Rebecca J. Rosen, the editor of “Dear Therapist,” is filling in as The Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” archivist, pointing readers to some of Lori’s most beloved columns.

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.”

illustration of two people walking surrounded by puddles
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: I Don’t Know How to Help My Angry, Unmotivated, Adult Son

My 26-year-old son has been through a lot. Is it possible to support him emotionally and financially while nudging him toward independence?

An illustration of a woman watching another woman get pulled away
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: If My Sister Won’t Leave Her Awful Boyfriend, I’m Done With Her

My sister is beautiful, talented, and successful, and I don’t understand why she’s wasting her time with this guy.

illustration of a woman watching a couple skate
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: My Best Friend’s Wife Cheated on Him

I don’t want to be cruel to her, but I cannot be her friend.

two women stand in a puddle of tears
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: My Sister Is a Mess and I Don’t Know How to Help Her

My younger sister is constantly anxious whenever she comes to visit, and I want to help without completely draining myself.

a girl sees a professor and a student embracing
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: A Professor Is Abusing My Friend

Her relationship shows all the typical signs of emotional manipulation and physical harm, but she refuses to admit that there’s a problem.

illustration of a mother defending her children against bullies
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: I’m So Upset by My Kids’ Middle-School Drama

I’m not sure why I’m reacting so strongly to hearing about conflicts at school.

illustration of hands reaching out of a phone
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: I’m Growing Exhausted Dealing With My Sister’s Anxiety

How can I balance her need for support with my own need for boundaries?

illustration of a daughter comforting her mother
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: My Mom Needs Help

I don’t think a day has gone by that she hasn’t cried.

illustration of a person pulling their friend out of a chasm in the ground
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: My Best Friend Can’t Find a Job Because of COVID-19

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.