Participatory action research is often informed by strength-based approaches such as appreciative inquiry. However, when social change and collective action appear to be difficult, feelings of powerlessness and suffering can arise. There is an ongoing debate on the place and importance of these so-called negative emotions within strength-based approaches. In a participatory action research project on citizen participation in the Netherlands we encountered a social and political context that was beyond our ability to change. We came to realize that change or action is not always possible in participatory action research and that ‘pushing’ for action can become a disempowering experience for those involved. In this article we share the moral dilemmas that we encountered and reflect on our own learning experiences as academic researchers. We argue that researchers need to anticipate upon these moral challenges by reflecting upon their personal position towards powerlessness and suffering. Nussbaum’s notion of compassion can help researchers to create space for these experiences and to acknowledge these experiences as sources of generative knowledge. Researchers should carefully navigate between fostering action and expressing compassion in participatory action research. With this article we aim to contribute to a care ethical perspective on participatory action research that acknowledges vulnerabilities and precariousness in research practices.