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Fears of Compassion

By Vien Nguyen, CEI Intern

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of our series on Barriers to Compassion.

A teacher colleague of mine said her first year in urban teaching “set her nerves on fire.” Every day she felt equal parts excited, exhausted, and determined. Many new teachers are overwhelmed and suffer from “empathic distress,” misguidedly neglecting their own needs in a “noble” effort to educate their students. Chronically stressed teachers treat students more harshly than they intend and often burn out within the first few years (Hill, 2011). Similarly, when a child experiences ongoing trauma and their basic psychological needs are not met, they have less energy to offer a hug or a kind word to a peer in need.

In a decade-long project building a compassion-focused therapy model, Paul Gilbert and his network of colleagues have identified fears of compassion (Gilbert, McEwan, Matos, & Rivis, 2011). They have found that individuals with high levels of self-criticism find expressing and receiving compassion difficult. Any school leader seeking to reduce teacher burnout and create a compassionate, trauma-informed culture must understand these fears and their influences.

Societal Contributions to Fears of Compassion

The way we’ve structured our society has contributed to people’s baseline fears of compassion. The sheer number of people in cities creates social distance and less accountability for people’s actions. For example, adults tend to ignore homeless people as they walk by every day; doing so has become an implicit norm (Seider, 2011). Some have the false belief that homeless people are lazy and exploitative – that “people will take advantage of you if you are too forgiving and compassionate.” (Gilbert et al., 2011) On Gilbert’s Fears of Compassion scale, this belief is called the “Fear of Expressing Affection.” Our current society is a far cry from the villages humans lived in thousands of years ago, in which individuals knew all of their societal mates by name and family.

People are also more distrustful nowadays than they were 40 years ago. Less than 35% of Americans agree with the statement “most people can be trusted” (Ortiz-Ospina, & Roser, 2016). This in turn distorts people’s worldviews, and many neutral events take on a fearful tone. Thus, people begin to fear responding to compassion from others (Gilbert et al., 2011).

Students in the foster care system may be especially likely to fear compassion from others (Tyler, & Melander, 2010). Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, notes that abuse in foster care happens more frequently than is reported. Indeed, most states cite that significantly lower percentages of foster children are harmed every year than the children report in surveys going back for decades (Wexler, 2017). Educators in hard-to-staff urban districts must work doubly hard to earn the trust of these students. In general, the American public health care and education systems do not adequately care for at-risk student populations in cities and rural areas. Fears of compassion don’t come from societal norms and trends alone. Some fears arise specifically within the teaching profession.

Fears of Compassion in the Teaching Profession

Teachers are frequently encouraged to reflect on their instructional practices and give themselves feedback. Unfortunately, feedback can be unproductive when it turns into self-criticism. Teachers who fear self-compassion may say (Gilbert et. al., 2011):

  1. “I fear that if I become kinder and less self-critical to myself then my standards will drop.”

  2. “Getting on in life is about being tough rather than compassionate.”

When coaching teachers, school leaders should differentiate explicitly between self-criticism and self-compassion, providing specific examples of both and “turning negative statements into a question and a call to action” (Watson, 2015).

Individual students’ fears of compassion

Students with insecure attachment styles, such as avoidant or anxious attachments, may fear responding to compassion from others. A kind word from a teacher may remind a student of wanting but not receiving affection from their own parents. Such students might say (Gilbert et. al., 2011):

  1. “I’m fearful of becoming dependent on the care from others, because they might not always be available or willing to give it.”

  2. “If people are friendly and kind, I worry they will find out something bad about me that will change their mind.”

Students with the most severely disrupted attachment style, disorganized, may associate compassion from others with manipulation and danger. Such students may think (Gilbert et. al., 2011):

  1. “I often wonder whether displays of warmth and kindness from others are genuine.”

  2. “I worry that people are only kind and compassionate if they want something from me.”

School leaders who understand why individuals fear compassion are better equipped to build compassionate school cultures. To learn more about CEI’s signature Heart Centered Learning, click here.


Hill, A. C. (2011). The cost of caring: An investigation in the effects of teaching traumatized children in urban elementary settings. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Open Access Dissertations.

Seider, S. (2011). The role of privilege as identity in adolescents’ beliefs about homelessness, opportunity, and inequality. Youth & Society, 43(1), 333-364.

Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Matos, M., & Rivis, A. (2011). Fears of compassion: Development of three self-report measures. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 84, 239–255.

Ortiz-Ospina, E., & Roser, M. (2016, July 22). Trust.

Tyler, K. A., & Melander, L. A. (2010, December). Foster care placement, poor parenting, and negative outcomes among homeless young adults. Journal of child and family studies, 19(6), 787–794.


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