Is Your Compassion Self-serving?


In the 2007 film, 3:10 to Yuma, Christian Bale’s character loses his foot while fighting in the Civil War. As compensation, the government gives him a sum of money, with which he attempts to forge a new life. Ultimately, though, he realizes that the government didn’t give him the money so he could walk away. They gave him the money so they could walk away. The token sum wasn’t so much to help him out as it was a settlement of any obligation the government had to him.


It’s a cynical perspective. But sadly, it seems to hold some universal truth, even within the realm of dating and relationships. Sometimes, we may believe we’re acting out of compassion and sympathy, but upon further scrutiny, we’re actually pandering to our own interests. Take the true story of Steven and Joanne:

Steven met Joanne through a mutual friend and was immediately intrigued by her. At first, Joanne wasn’t sure if she was interested. But he was persistent, so she decided to give him a chance. As they spent more and more time together, she realized that she was developing strong feelings for him. Unfortunately, the opposite was true for Steven. He found that his intrigue was slowly fading into disinterest.

After dating for five months, Steven called off the relationship, badly hurting Joanne in the process. In an effort to be the nice guy, Steven would occasionally call Joanne to “check up” and to see how she was doing. He wanted to show her that he still cared. As a compassionate person, he told himself, he was doing the right thing.

Now, is Steven a great guy or what? Talk about being the perfect model of a compassionate citizen, right?


Or is he? Is Steven actually being compassionate? Or is his compassion really a guise for his selfishness? When Steven calls Joanne to check up on her, is he really trying to offer support? Or is he hoping that she’ll be fine (or at least say she is), and then he can walk away feeling less guilty about his actions?

As it turned out, Steven’s phone calls only dragged on the pain for Joanne. Every time he called, she couldn’t help but wonder if he was still interested. After all, he seemed to care about her so much. How could he not have romantic feelings for her still? Eventually, the phone calls became less frequent and ceased altogether. And eventually, Joanne’s pain subsided. In its wake remained feelings of resentment, and unanswered questions lingered in her mind.

“He clearly wasn’t interested anymore. And we were never friends to begin with. Why in the world did he want to be my friend after breaking up with me? What purpose did it serve?” Reflecting on these phone calls months later, Joanne came to realize that Steven wasn’t excited about calling her, and didn’t even really want to spend time with her anymore. He was only calling out of some strange sense of obligation to make her feel better.

And maybe that’s the cynical reality of many supposedly compassionate people out there. Maybe it’s not that they’re compassionate. Maybe they just suffer a lot of guilt, and compassion is how they alleviate their guilt. If Steven truly wants Joanne to heal and to move on with her life, he needs to leave her alone. He needs to be the bad guy and let her be angry and upset at him.

In fact, Steven wasn’t being a nice guy to Joanne so that she could walk away unscathed. He was being a nice guy to her so that he could walk away unscathed. His token phone calls weren’t so much to help her feel better as they were to help himself feel better about hurting her. How do I know this? Because I’m the mutual friend who introduced Steven and Joanne, and I witnessed both sides of the breakup.


So, if you think Steven is turning out to be a self-serving weenie after all, consider this the next time you decide to end a relationship:

If you ever break someone’s heart, don’t be a compassionate person. Don’t be a nice guy, or a nice girl. If you ever say to someone, “I just want to be friends,” don’t actually try to be their friend. Just leave them alone and even let them hate you for a while. That’s what they need to do in order to heal.

But if you still feel absolutely compelled to call, be honest with yourself:

Are you really trying to help the other person? Or are you trying to help yourself?