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What Is Compassion and Why Should We Care?

April 3, 2023

It’s not whether pain will show up; it’s how we’ll respond when it does. KEY POINTS Our instinct is to avoid our pain and side-step other people’s suffering. Being there for ourselves will help us better be there for others, and giving and receiving care from others will strengthen us. Emerging psychological research suggests that […]

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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion

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It’s not whether pain will show up; it’s how we’ll respond when it does.

KEY POINTS

  • Our instinct is to avoid our pain and side-step other people’s suffering.
  • Being there for ourselves will help us better be there for others, and giving and receiving care from others will strengthen us.
  • Emerging psychological research suggests that we evolved to be kind, caregiving, and collaborative.

When my son was two, he burned both his palms on an oven door I had left open while making cookies. As I cooled his hands under running water, my first thought was, “It was my fault. I am a bad mom.” But then I caught myself. What my son needed was a loving mom right now. If I was in my head beating myself up, I was only partially there for him. I took a breath and rubbed his back with compassion. To be there for my son, I needed to be there for myself, too. We are connected.

Caring is fundamental to our human nature. Caring for ourselves helps us navigate the little pains like minor parenting mistakes and the big ones like break-ups, illness, trauma, and loss. Caring for others connects us, motivates us to reach out and help, and gives our life purpose and meaning.

When you open your heart to life’s challenges and offer care, you are engaging in compassion.

Even though our brains evolved to care for our own well-being and that of others, many of us find it difficult to stay present and loving when faced with discomfort. Compassion is a skill set, and most of us still need to learn how to better be there for ourselves and care for each other.

We all do things we regret, face sudden bad news, and feel the stress of life’s uncertainty. Compassion is a value that can anchor you and be an active force to help you stay present, engaged, and open-hearted as you move through the challenges of living a human life.

The question isn’t whether pain will show up; it’s how you will respond to yourself and others when it does.

Compassion can feel foreign or challenging for many of us. Our instinct is to avoid our pain and side-step other people’s suffering. For example, do you

  • Distract yourself or check out from uncomfortable feelings?
  • Criticize yourself when you make a mistake?
  • Want to avoid feeling anxious, sad, or angry?
  • Look away when others are hurting?
  • Have a hard time accepting help?
  • Feel disconnected from your body?
  • Have difficulty forgiving yourself or others?

Instead of withdrawing from what is painful, with compassion, you turn toward challenges and offer yourself and others your attention and support.

Compassion is a flow. Being there for yourself will help you better be there for others, and giving and receiving care from others will strengthen you, energize you, and offer you a sense of purpose.

Compassion is not a “should” or “ought” but an intrinsic desire to care for others and yourself. With compassion, you have the wisdom to see and understand things as they are and feel motivated to do something about it (Gilbert and Choden, 2014).

Definitions of Compassion

The word compassion comes from “com,” meaning with, and “passion,” meaning suffer. It literally means to suffer together, but compassion moves beyond just suffering. Practicing compassion involves confronting suffering and being motivated to help. Paul Gilbert describes compassion as having two parts:

  1. Engagement: Turning toward pain and suffering.
  2. Alleviation: Taking action to relieve pain and suffering.

Gilbert writes,

Compassion calls upon us to engage with suffering by being sensitive and open to it, while also generating the feelings of kindness, affiliative connection and warmth that can soothe and alleviate suffering. (Gilbert and Choden, p. 156, 2014)

For many of us, the word compassion may conjure up images of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Goodall, Thích Nhất Hạnh, and Desmond Tutu—incredible people who devoted their lives to the selfless care and commitment to others’ well-being. But there are compassionate people everywhere who are tuned in to the needs of others and taking daily action to be of service. And that includes you!

Consider these for yourself. Have you experienced

  • An encouraging teacher or coach who believed in you?
  • A friend who offered support when you faced loss?
  • A health care provider who stayed calm when you were in crisis?
  • A pet that offered a soft snuggle when you were sick?
  • You, when you showed up with an open heart for yourself and others?

Although some may dismiss compassion as “touchy–feely” or occurring only rarely, emerging psychological research suggests that we evolved to be kind, caregiving, and collaborative. It’s what makes us human and allows us to be there for each other. As my favorite guitarist and climate activist Jack Johnson sings, we’re “Better Together.”

Caring

Insight meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal translates the Pali term for compassion, which is Anukampa, to mean “caring.” He says he likes the word “care” because of its double meanings. It means to care for others, to value and appreciate them. But it also means to actively do something for them—to help and support them. Be a caregiver.

Compassion is a simple and basic way of relating to the world. You value caring and you take action to express that care. Compassion is actively protecting, supporting, teaching, and being generous toward yourself and the world around you. It’s a way of showing heartfelt concern for the welfare of all beings.

Compassion looks like this:

  • Asking yourself, “What do I really need in this moment?”
  • Being sensitive to the suffering of others.
  • Offering help because deep down you really care.
  • Reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes sometimes.
  • Turning toward difficult emotions with kindness.
  • Setting boundaries.
  • Speaking up against injustice.
  • Being of service to something bigger than you.

Compassion is also a value that emerges as we grow more psychologically flexible. When you are open, willing, and engaged with your values, you may just find compassion is a natural outgrowth of committed action. Your brain and heart evolved to be caring. How can you act on compassion today?

To learn more about compassion and process-based approaches for living well, listen to Diana Hills’s podcast Your Life in Process.

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