Is Your Kindness Being Mistaken For Weakness?

I saw something recently on the internet that sparked my interest.

Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand (also known as the woman who led an excellent response to the COVID-19 crisis in her country) is known and loved by so many around the world.

One of my favourite things about Jacinda is her leadership style. She has an unwavering and unapologetic commitment to empathy, compassion, and kindness in her leadership.

But don’t mistake her kindness for weakness.

To her critics who believe her leadership is weak, Jacinda says this:

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

When I read this, I did mental cartwheels 🤸🏽‍♀️🤸🏾‍♀️🤸🏻‍♀️

Jacinda’s compassion and empathy are a source of strength. She leads with these qualities; they are not an afterthought!

In a world that values dominance, objectivity, and lack of emotion, it’s refreshing to hear qualities that encourage human connection can be both valuable and effective.

And that my friends, is what this post is all about.

Compassion and strength are often pitted against each other.

Apparently, you cannot have one without the other (I hope you can hear my sarcasm in that sentence).

However, the truth is that compassion and empathy do not make us weak. In fact, they make us stronger.

In this post we will explore:

What compassion is

How compassion and vulnerability make us stronger (not weaker)

Ways you can put this knowledge into practice

What Is Compassion?

Here is the official definition of compassion: a consciousness of others’ distress with a desire to alleviate it.

Compassion is often used interchangeably with empathy, sympathy, and even kindness.

However, it is different due this one added element: the desire to alleviate others’ distress and suffering. This actionable element of compassion is what sets it apart.

When we feel compassion for someone, we are both able to understand that person’s feelings as if they were our own (i.e. empathy!) AND we are motivated to act in some way to improve their situation.

Can you see how this combination can be incredibly valuable in a leadership role? And in many other situations, really.

Compassion Is A Four-Step Process

According to the Compassion Institute, there are 4 steps to cultivating compassion:

Awareness of suffering

Being emotionally moved by the suffering and feeling sympathetic concern

Desire to see relief of the suffering

Readiness and responsiveness to help ease the suffering  

The Difference Between Empathy And Compassion

Empathy is also an incredibly important emotional experience! There are many times when empathy is exactly what it needed.

Here's the thing though: empathy can be an exhausting state. If you are commonly experiencing the pain of others, it can lead to burnout. Therefore, too much empathy can have a negative impact on our wellbeing.

On the contrary, compassion is what you can call a renewable resource. It's harder to burnout when the pain you feel for others is accompanied by a desire and motivation to do something to help alleviate it.

This is part of the reason why donating to relief efforts makes us feel better. Acting in some way seems to be the key to feeling others' suffering without becoming consumed by it.

How does this tie into compassion making us stronger?

Compassion Is Strength

Western cultures tend to see compassion as a weakness.

Raise your hand if you have heard some version of this: if you are compassionate, you are 'too soft' or you 'haven't got what it takes' to make it.

This is especially true if you grew up in an environment where being compassionate was not valued. In these cases, it's common to experience harsh feelings of shame and frustration towards yourself for having feelings in the first place.

I'm going to channel Jacinda Ardern for a moment and reject that right here right now.  It is entirely possible to be both compassionate and strong- in fact having compassion for ourselves and others makes us stronger.

Here is why.

Compassion Helps You Bounce Back From Setbacks And Build Resilience

Mistakes are inevitable. And when we make them, we have a tendency to be very hard on ourselves.

Facing mistakes and setbacks with self-compassion improves the likelihood that we can forgive ourselves and learn from those mistakes, rather than wallow in the harsh feelings.

We will always learn more from our failures than successes. Showing ourselves compassion sets us up to gain more from our mistakes and make better choices the next time around.

I think we can all agree that someone who is not afraid to make mistakes is a strong person indeed.

Compassion Is The Root Of Vulnerability

It takes compassion to be truly vulnerable. Vulnerability is essentially an emotional risk. It involves risking emotional exposure in order to do something that is necessary or important for us in the long term.

Practicing vulnerability is a courageous act. To feel challenging emotions, to love, take big risks....this all requires vulnerability and allows us to live full and authentic lives.

It's always been clear to me that vulnerability is the exact opposite of weakness.

How is compassion rooted in vulnerability? Well, when we afford ourselves and others compassion, it signifies two things:

  1. No matter what happens, our compassion will always be a safety net
  2. Taking the risk of being vulnerable is doing something- and we know from above that actions help us deal with the emotional toll of feeling pain

So, to sum it up: compassion is our safety net for vulnerability, and vulnerability both takes strength and makes us stronger! No sign of weakness here.

Compassion Improves Distress Tolerance

Being compassionate allows us to improve our ability to manage challenging emotions. When we are self-compassionate, we are better able to ride out tough feelings and emerge stronger. Extending compassion to others has a similar effect on them.

It's easier to challenging periods in our life and supports loved ones during their own storms when we have compassion.

And those who are able to tolerate distress well tend to be more strong and resilient in the face of future adversity.

A Compassionate Leader Is A Stronger Leader

As a leader, your emotional state will naturally affect that of others.

A leader who can make room for their emotions and acknowledge other team members' emotions and capacity has a competitive advantage. In work life, we all tend to make mistakes, and these mistakes usually have us feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid that someone will find out.

A leader who can feel compassion for themselves and others during these setbacks has an advantage. They will be better able to connect with their employees and spin moments of crisis into excellent learning opportunities and successes.

We often measure the strength of leadership by outcomes. While this is important, the process of how one leads matters too!

Putting It All Together

Compassion makes us stronger and more resilient because it improves our relationship with failure- both in ourselves and others.

How can we use this knowledge? Here are a few ideas:

Start with yourself by practicing self-compassion

When others reveal they are struggling, use that moment as an opportunity to connect over your common humanity and strengthen that relationship

Release yourself and others from unreasonable expectations- your relationships and leadership will be stronger when you have compassion for the abilities and capacity of others

Try not to confuse compassion with people-pleasing. Compassion is not about giving people what they want all the time!

Wrapping Up

Compassion and strength are not only compatible, they go hand in hand. Jacinda Ardern is inspiring to so many of us because she is showing the world that this is true even in the highest forms of leadership.

By having compassion as your safety net, you are in the best position to do mighty and courageous things.

I truly believe that the more we practice compassion, the more resilience we will find in ourselves and others. And what is stronger than resilience?

I would love to hear from you: How has compassion shaped the defining moments of your life?

As always, if you have any questions about this topic or need some additional support, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team! You can also book a free phone consult at anytime.

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services