Why Having Compassion for Invisible Conditions Is So Hard


Three years ago, a friend of mine discovered that she had an autoimmune disorder. When she told me her news, I was sympathetic. I’ve done my best to be supportive as she has gone through more testing, gotten more information, tried supplements, and struggled to get her diet right for her body. Even as I thought, “I’m so glad I don’t have to eat that way!”, I’ve had deep compassion for her. A malfunctioning immune system is a serious problem.

Unfortunately, it is also an invisible one. My friend can be having a bad day, and the rest of the world can’t tell unless she speaks up. Sharing our vulnerability with others is scary and feels dangerous; what if someone takes advantage of our confessed weakness? Because her difficulties can’t be seen, few people realize the challenges she faces. The only way she gets the help she needs is if she has the courage to ask for it.

Being compassionate always boils down to one thing: being able to understand on some level what someone else is going through. I’ve lost loved ones, so I can commiserate with those in mourning. I’ve put a beloved pet to sleep and understand the heartache of friends in the same situation. I have some idea what your breakup was like, because I’ve been dumped, too.

Sometimes just imagining something is enough: we see someone without a limb and for a moment wonder what it would be like to live without an arm. Instantly, we can feel compassion for this person.

But imagination is rooted in vision. We see things with our minds, project the variables onto our own lives, and imagine the results. What about the things we can’t see? Many illnesses are invisible, just as many tragedies are carried around in our hearts rather than on our sleeves. A person can look fine to us and be working through the greatest challenge of their life.

This is why I promote the idea of kindness so often. We don’t know what other people are struggling with. We don’t know how hard their day has been. We don’t know what it is like to live in their skin. Better to be gentle with them because they are human than to assume they are “just fine” and can take rough handling.

Maintaining a high level of compassion for another takes energy, and can be hard to sustain. No wonder one day’s vow to do whatever we can for someone in crisis can be forgotten the next. It seems even more natural not to fight for that understanding, especially when the situation is alien to us and can’t even be seen.

In February, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. I am now following the very diet I was so grateful I didn’t need. As I come to understand the changes I must make because of this diagnosis, I am reaching new levels of compassion for my friend.

I thought I understood before. I feel like I really understand now. But in fact, I still don’t understand, not truly. She has different AI disorders than I do, so her symptoms aren’t exactly the same. Her choices and needs are different from mine. There are things she can eat that I can’t, and vice versa.

Today, I have compassion for those who don’t understand hidden vulnerabilities, the way I didn’t understand what my friend was dealing with before I got my diagnosis. It’s the easiest thing in the world to feel compassion for those we are like. The trick is to be compassionate about the invisible, unimaginable troubles of another.

Today, members of 1000 Voices of Compassion are blogging about vulnerability. To see a list of other posts on vulnerability and compassion, click here.

6 thoughts on “Why Having Compassion for Invisible Conditions Is So Hard”

  1. It is difficult to admit our vulnerability when we fear acceptance and empathy. I hope you find both on your journey. Ableism exists, I’m sorry to say. Don’t let the comments made my others define you. There are many out there who “get it” and are happy to offer support. Just let us know how to best help you find your path.

    1. You’re right, acceptance and empathy can be just as devastating as lack of understanding. I’m still coming to grips with this change in my life and am grateful I know people who have dealt with this sort of thing in their lives. I’m sure they will help me learn how to live with this. Thanks for your kind words.

  2. You are so right. I have two *invisible* conditions, though one is visible if you know what to look for. People don’t realise how hard it can be to live with this sort of thing.

    1. I’m sorry to hear it. It’s true, some “invisible” issues are actually visible, but the only people who tend to know the signs are others with the same problem.

      I finally have a name for my invisible problem, which is helping me to be more compassionate with myself, but I don’t think it’s going to change how others view me very much. And I still have the same problems I had before.


  3. Well said, Kit. None of us is too busy to notice a friend or a stranger who could use just a smile. I try, too, to understand what other people are dealing with. I’m not always good at it, though. I try to remind myself before shopping that the clerk or the butcher may be having one of those days where they ache or have some other invisible problem. Kindness and compassion are free to give and taking the time to notice and to try to understand is good for our souls. ♡

    1. Treating others kindly makes so much sense. Better to assume that someone who is abrupt or rude is having a bad day than that they are a bad person. No one is naturally crabby; we have reasons when we get short-tempered and grouchy.

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