NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Understanding the Difference Between Compassion and Responsibility - Part 1

Understanding the difference between compassion and responsibility is often confusing for adults who were abused and traumatized as children.

Understanding the Difference Between Compassion and Responsibility

Compassion vs Responsibility
Since one of my specialties is helping clients to overcome emotional trauma, I see many adult clients who were traumatized and abused as children.

Many of these clients, as children, felt responsible for parents who were impaired either due to substance abuse, mental illness or for some other reason.  This is a common experience for children who became parentified children, which means that at a young age they took on the parental role with their parents and siblings.

This is a tremendous burden for a child to take on, but I often hear from adult clients that if they had not taken on that role, the household wouldn't have functioned:  There would have been no food, no clean clothes, the younger siblings wouldn't have been helped to get dressed to go to school, and so on.

The child who takes on this role isn't only robbed of a childhood, she also grows up feeling confused about the difference between feeling compassion and taking on responsibility.

Confusing Compassion and Responsibility: An Abusive Mother

So, for instance, there might have been a mother who drank excessively and who, while drunk, was physically abusive with the children.

But this same mother, when sober, might feel tremendous remorse for being physically abusive when she was drunk.  She might have apologized profusely, while sober, and promised her children that she would never do it again--only to repeat this cycle over and over again.

Confusing Compassion and Responsibility: A Cycle of Abuse and Remorse

In this situation, a child, who takes on the parent's responsibility often feels a tremendous sense of compassion for the mother when she is sober and remorseful.

This same child might feel that she cannot leave her younger siblings alone with the mother because she knows that if she leaves, her siblings will suffer at the hands of the mother.  So, she has to stay and take care of the family.

Staying to protect her siblings might mean missed opportunities to play with friends, attend after school programs, sports activities and the usual children's activities.

Later on, it might also mean that she will be too afraid to leave to go to college because she fears the household will fall apart without her there to pick up the pieces when her mother gets drunk.

It's also common for young children, who are abused emotionally and physically, to feel that they're responsible for their abuse.

These children will often say, "It's my fault that she got drunk" or "If I were a better daughter, she wouldn't have beat me."

Distorted Beliefs About Compassion and Responsibility Often Continue Into Adulthood
Even as adults, they often continue to have these distorted beliefs on an emotional level, and this can have tremendous repercussions for them.

Even when they understand logically that that their beliefs are distorted, on an emotional level, they continue to feel this way.

It usually affects how they feel about themselves, especially in terms of their self esteem or their ability to feel that they deserve good things in their lives.

Distorted Beliefs About Compassion and Responsibility Often Continue Into Adulthood

It can affect the types of relationships that they choose as adults, possibly choosing partners that they feel they have to rescue or take responsibility for in some way.

For instance, if, as adults, they're in a relationship with someone who is abusing alcohol and they feel compassion for their partner, they might feel that they must take on the responsibility for rescuing the partner--even if the partner is abusive.

In these cases, this is an unconscious repetition of what they experienced as children because they've grown up to feel that compassion equals responsibility.   So, they will often try to rescue their partner even when it comes at a great emotional, physical and/or financial risk to themselves.

In these situations, people might feel unhappy and trapped, but they don't see a way out because they feel they can't leave their partner.

Even when they do manage to leave an abusive relationship, they often get into another relationship where there is a similar dynamic and start the cycle all over again.

Once again, this is usually on an unconscious level, so they don't realize that they keep repeating this pattern each time.

It's not unusual to see this pattern continue from one generation to the next.

This dynamic also has repercussions for adults in psychotherapy who want to overcome childhood trauma, and I will address this issue in my next article (see my article:  Understanding the Difference Between Compassion and Responsibility - Part 2).

Getting Help in Therapy
Most people who were abused as children never come to therapy.  They continue to blame themselves for what happened to them as children as well as the abuse that they endure as adults.

They also continue to perpetuate the self destructive pattern of confusing compassion with responsibility.

If the dynamic that I've described in this article resonates with you, you're not alone.

Getting Help in Therapy to Lead a More Fulfilling Life

Although taking the first step is usually the most challenging, it can also be the most empowering.

Getting help in therapy from a licensed trauma therapist can help you to overcome the early emotional trauma that's keeping you stuck in your life.

Getting help in therapy can free you from your emotional history so you can lead a happier, more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.