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C is for Compassion

Updated: Sep 17, 2022

What is compassion?

The word compassion comes from the Latin ‘pati’, which means to suffer, and the prefix ‘com’ meaning ‘with’ so compassion literally means ‘to suffer with’. It can further be defined as a feeling that arises when you see another suffering and the desire that is evoked to relieve that suffering and the resulting actions that are taken.

Compassion is related to sympathy or empathy (where there is an ability to relate to another person's pain as if it's your own) but it is more than than just feelings and connection with suffering because it involves an active response. Compassion often embodies a tangible expression of love for those who are suffering i.e. it is motivated by a desire to alleviate pain and it prompts us to get involved and act.

Do we always feel compassion when we see others in difficulty or struggling?

“Make no judgments where you have no compassion” Anne McCaffrey

Compassion is not always an automatic response, but it is something that can be fostered as we learn to develop awareness and empathy and put aside assumptions and judgements.

Compassion is a response that only occurs when we perceive a situation to be serious, unjust and relatable. Our level of compassion is reduced when we start applying judgments e.g. seeing others at fault for the predicament that they are in.

Self compassion

Compassion can also be applied to oneself through self- acceptance and self-forgiveness i.e. cutting yourself the same slack and giving yourself the same support that you would offer to others.

Self-compassion involves “self-kindness versus self-judgment; a sense of common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus over-identification” Kristen Neff

Self-kindness v Self-judgment Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. 

Common humanity v isolation Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes.  All humans suffer, however.

Mindfulness v over-identification Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. When we relate personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, it tends to put our own situation into a larger perspective.

(For a more detailed explanation why not watch Kristin Neff: The Three Components of Self-Compassion on YouTube )

Self-compassion is basically about recognising that we are all imperfectly perfect beings part of one shared human experience. It is about offering yourself understanding and kindness when you fail or make mistakes; asking yourself how you can care for yourself in this moment, rather than judging yourself harshly.

When we look at our inadequacies with compassion, it is not detrimental to our self-esteem and happiness but instead allows us to face ourselves with honesty and kindness rather than with criticism safe in the knowledge that no one is perfect.

Why is compassion important?

"Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too." Fredrick Buechner

Compassion promotes kindness. Compassion is important because it inspires us to be kind to ourselves and others and do ‘good deeds’ thereby making the world a better place to live in.

Compassion encourages heroes. Compassion is what motivates not only the many well-known selfless people throughout history but also the many unsung heroes that go about their daily life quietly with integrity.

Compassion is related to increased happiness.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama

Compassion gives both the giver and the receiver the opportunity to experience happiness

Compassion is good for our well-being Showing compassion for others make us feel better about ourselves, but self-compassion can also improve our well-being and is linked to more positive ageing

Compassion in medical settings leads to less stress and better recovery and long-term survival rates e.g. among people living with HIV

Self-compassion buffers the negative impact of stress (Allen & Leary, 2010).

Self-compassionate people prepare for and deal with negative events more proactively.

“Self-compassion may be a valuable coping resource when people experience negative life events. People who are self-compassionate are less likely to catastrophise negative situations, experience anxiety following a stressor, and avoid challenging tasks for fear of failure. Research suggests that self-compassion can play an important role in the coping process. Allen & Leary

Compassion increases resilience

“Compassion triggers positive affect in the face of suffering and therefore contributes to resilience and well-being.” Dorian Peters, Rafael A Calvo

Compassion improves psychological health. When we learn to look beyond our flaws and treat ourselves with forgiveness and understanding, we increase our own psychological health and well-being.

“Root out the violence in your life and learn to live compassionately and mindfully. Seek peace. When you have peace within, real peace with others is possible”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Self-compassion is significantly correlated with positive mental health outcomes such as less depression and anxiety and greater life satisfaction

The combination of self-compassion and optimism is beneficial for those who have a tendency towards depression (Shapira & Mongrain, 2010) particularly when compared with those who exhibit low habitual self-compassion and high self-criticism which are related to a higher risk of depression (Ehret, Joorman, & Berking, 2014).

Self-compassion has a number of proven psychological benefits, such as reduced PTSD symptom severity (Thompson & Waltz, 2008), and lower levels of psychopathology in general (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012).

Compassion promotes social connection among adults and children. Social connection is important to adaptive human functioning, as it is related to increased self-esteem, empathy, well-being; and higher interpersonal orientation (Seppala et al., 2013).

Compassion promotes positive parenting by improving parent-child relationships. There are various mindfulness-based parent training approaches and parenting books with a specific focus on the subject of compassionate parenting (i.e., 'Raising Children Compassionately: Parenting the Nonviolent Communication Way', Rosenberg, 2004 , 'Parenting From Your Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection, and Choice', Kashtan, 2004 etc )

The benefits of compassion are not just restricted within families, it has been proven to have a positive effect in classrooms too with increased cooperation and better learning. In the book 'The Compassionate Classroom' (Hart & Kindle Hodson, 2004) Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson merge recent discoveries in brain research with the proven skills of Non-violent Communication and come to a bold conclusion - when compassion thrives, so does learning. But improvements are not just restricted to students when compassion is shown to teachers by their colleagues teacher job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and sense of emotional vigour is also increased (Eldor & Shoshani, 2016).

For a comprehensive list of books on the subject of compassion of adults and children visit this link on Dr Krisitin Neff’s site

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.” Andrew Boyd

Compassion can be messy and painful to feel because it requires empathy for others, but is a meaningful requisite of a caring society and necessary because it evokes positive action.

How can we increase our levels of compassion?

“Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s hearts. Western civilizations these days place great importance on filling the human ‘brain’ with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human ‘heart’ with compassion.” Dalai Lama

Compassion is a powerful aspect of the human experience and most humans have a natural capacity for compassion. There is a growing consensus of opinion that we have the ability to enhance compassion through e.g. mindfulness and seeking to understand not judge

Finally, I encourage you to read this article from positive psychology about cultivating compassion through training and how compassion can be measured plus some of the ways you can introduce more compassion to your own life, as well as the lives of others.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive”

14th Dalai Lama

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