Ruthless Compassion: The Power to Be Kind but Not a Pushover

Marcia Sirota
6 min readNov 24, 2023

The world is in a bad place these days. It’s clear that we all need to be kinder to each other. We really need more empathy [the understanding and emotional appreciation of another person’s experience] and more compassion [a caring response to another’s distress]. It’s also clear that many people aren’t so sure what these things are or how to put them into practice.

How to be an asshole

We’re all aware of what it means to be a selfish, insensitive jerk. We see so many representations of this in the media. From the sociopaths in politics doing their best to wreck our democracy; to the liars and cheats running big companies and destroying the environment in the process; to the scammers inundating our devices; to the constant stream of predators we see on trial for sexual misconduct; to the hypocrites in positions of trust who are abusing their authority by exploiting the innocent; all of these individuals are modelling the worst of human behaviour.

These people mistakenly believe that being an asshole is how to get what they want. Sadly, with hearts so completely closed to the needs and feelings of others, they can never have meaningful connections. They can never have real intimacy. For these reasons, it’s impossible for them to ever be happy. They feel continually empty and mistakenly pursue more of the same, convinced that their failure to find satisfaction is due to not having been sufficiently selfish and insensitive.

black and white square print floor rug

How to be a doormat

We’re equally aware of the model of the nice person in the media. This is someone who bends over backwards, tolerates mistreatment, and is a chronic people-pleaser. It’s the person who won’t stand up for themselves; who never speaks out or challenges anyone. These people put up with a lot of hurtful behaviour and get nothing out of it.

What we don’t see in our media is the representation of a truly kind person — one who practices empathy and compassion but who is no pushover.

The truly kind person has equal amounts of self-love and love for others. They’re thoughtful and caring but they don’t put up with nonsense.

How to practice Ruthless Compassion

I developed my concept of Ruthless Compassion several years ago to inspire people to be kind but not nice.

The “ruthless” part of this idea refers to the determination to see the truth about yourself, others, and the world. It’s an unwillingness to accept mistreatment or to enable someone else’s bad behaviour.

To practice Ruthless Compassion is to have self-love, as opposed to self-indulgence. It’s not giving yourself a free pass to do whatever you want but rather, it’s taking responsibility for your actions without beating yourself up for your mistakes. It’s accountability without self-abuse.

Ruthless Compassion means accepting yourself with all your flaws while always trying to be a better version of yourself. It means facing your mistakes and learning from them. It’s forgiving yourself for messing up, while doing your best not to repeat the same mistakes.

You don’t have to be a wimp to be kind

It also means having an open heart and an open mind; being tolerant of others and feeling deeply for them, but having strong boundaries and limits. It means saying “no” when you need to. It’s facing the hard truths about the people in your life and giving them the appropriate consequences when necessary.

It means not enabling people in their bad behaviour, whether it’s towards themselves, towards others, or towards you. It means knowing when it’s right to confront someone and when it’s appropriate to just walk away.

Practicing Ruthless Compassion means not wasting your breath on people who are rigid, unreasonable, or disrespectful. It means not trying to negotiate with someone who has no interest in listening to you and no intention of changing their opinion or their behaviour.

To practice Ruthless Compassion is to be truly kind. The people who are close to you will be inspired by your way of being and might want to emulate it. Some folks around you might be angry, though, that they can’t get away with behaving badly toward you.

Sometimes, people who are unkind will mistake a truly kind person for a pushover. They’ll see our openness, thoughtfulness, courtesy and sensitivity as signs of weakness. They see our softness as a defect and often, they’re surprised to see that under all our gentleness, we have a backbone, and we won’t be strong-armed, coerced, or bullied.

You don’t have to be tough to be strong

I find that it’s not necessary to present as a “tough guy” in order to live as a strong but loving person. Practicing Ruthless Compassion means trusting yourself to stand up for yourself when you need to. It means being soft and gentle when that’s called for and fierce, feisty, and even ferocious when appropriate.

Being tough makes it impossible to be attuned to the needs and feelings of others. It also makes it difficult to be in touch with your own needs and feelings. Ruthless Compassion enables you to be soft and strong at the same time.

You can be vulnerable, flexible and responsive when you trust yourself to take the best possible care of yourself. You don’t need to be rigid, defensive, or guarded when you’re confident in your ability to be there for yourself.

Nice people care too much about what others think. They need the approval of others to boost their self esteem. They twist themselves into knots trying to make sure that others like them. They do too much for everyone else and often feel exhausted or even resentful for all that their efforts.

Unfortunately, they never feel loved because they’re not being sincere. They’re putting on a pleasing performance and the people around them don’t know who they really are, deep down. It’s sad, because they’re working so hard for approval and they’re not getting their needs met.

Ruthless Compassion can transform the world

Kind people are deeply caring but they aren’t attached to what other people think about them. They’re free to be authentic because they don’t feel the need to ingratiate themselves with anyone. As opposed to the nice people-pleasers, kind people are genuine, so they’re seen for who they are. When someone likes them, they can really appreciate it, because they know it’s real.

I would love for more people to practice Ruthless Compassion. The world would be a much better place if more of us could be truly kind.

When we’re kind, everyone around us can benefit. And because we’re taking care of ourselves, we don’t give more than we can. We don’t deplete ourselves when we’re being kind. We conserve our energy so that we can keep on loving each other.

No-one has to be a selfish jerk in order to get their needs met. No- one has to be a doormat in order to be liked. We can try a radical new approach to interacting with others by being kind but not nice. Why not try Ruthless Compassion today? It’s a win-win.

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Marcia Sirota

Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series