Compassion – What does it REALLY mean?

In order to understand what it means to be compassionate; we must first understand the different approaches people adopt in relating to another’s distress.

Problem Solver

Imagine you have just separated from your partner. An individual who encourages you to take action, without properly acknowledging the gravity of the situation, might be considered a ‘problem solver’. The cliché of encouraging someone to go for a quick run because they’re sad is typical of this ‘problem solver’ mindset. The solution here is unlikely to solve your distress, and you may be left feeling unheard and unsupported.

SympathiserFemale holding a red heart

Additionally, the ‘sympathiser’ is one who acknowledges the unfortunate nature of the situation without attempting to experience your negative emotions, nor encourage practical solutions to address the crisis. In other words, a friend of yours who responds to news of your break-up with “that’s too bad”, “that sucks for you”, and “how unfortunate”, could be appreciated as adopting this sympathiser mindset. In this situation, you may feel you’re not being listened to, and that your friend lacks the emotional insight to relate to your situation. Consequently, you may be less willing to disclose your thoughts and feelings concerning the break-up to this person.


Thirdly, consider the mindset of the ‘empath’. An empath is one who sits with your pain, and experiences the emotional distress alongside you. An empath is capable of reflecting back your thoughts and feelings, in such a way that makes you wish you used their words to describe your thoughts and feelings. Empaths make us feel comfortable in being vulnerable.

Compassion then, is empathy coupled with a drive to resolve the individual’s distress through practical means.

In other words, the compassionate individual is not content with merely experiencing the distress of others. There is a real desire to end the suffering. It’s important to note that the drive to end the distress is sufficient in our definition of compassion. There doesn’t need to have been some practical attempt at eliminating the distress. Author and science journalist Daniel Goleman writes, “true compassion means not only feeling another’s pain, but also being moved to help relieve it”.

Researchers have identified a number of positive outcomes in those receiving compassionate support. Examples include:

  • Increased happiness
  • Improved self-esteem, and well-being
  • Protection against depression, anxiety, stress, and burnout
  • Stronger relationship ties between the compassionate individual and one receiving compassionate support

But how can one practice compassion for others?

Holding hands

1 – Think of a character in a story you have come across. This could be in a television series, movie, or book. Did this character ever go through some struggle or personal crisis? Imagine this character coming to you for support. How could you adopt an empathic position whilst considering solutions to resolve their distress?

2 – Think back to a time when a family member, friend, or colleague came to you for support. How did you support this person at the time? Were you trying to be a ‘problem solver’, ‘sympathiser’, or ‘empath’? Recreate the conversation in your mind, but this time, adopt the position of a compassionate individual. What words could you use to let your family member, friend, or colleague feel supported and encouraged to explore their thoughts and feelings? How could you use a pragmatic approach here to resolve their distress?

3 – Make a conscious choice to support others compassionately today. You are never going to know when someone will come to you for support. Consequently, it’s important to adopt the mindset of a compassionate individual now. Remember our definition of compassion and carry this definition with you into the future.

When boarding a flight, we’re instructed to, in the event of an emergency, to put on our own oxygen mask, prior to helping others with theirs. Without a steady supply of oxygen, how are we suppose to help those next to us? In keeping with this logic, how is the person next to us suppose to help the passenger sitting next to them? We can use this oxygen mask analogy when thinking about compassion. Just as it’s important to be compassionate to others, we must be compassionate to ourselves. Practicing self-compassion is vital in obtaining the same positive outcomes others experience when receiving compassionate support.

Psychologist Kristin Neff has identified several distinct domains of self-compassion:

1 – Self-kindness – This dimension of self-compassion involves recognising that you’re deserving of the same compassion, love and support that you offer others. You wouldn’t allow your friends, family, and colleagues to receive anything less than the best support, so why should you? Self-kindness involves recognising that judging ourselves and our situations can be destructive and limiting. It’s only when we adopt an attitude of ‘understanding’, that we are free.

Male closing his eyes

2 – Recognising our common humanity – As we are all human, we’re all vulnerable to the same painful thoughts and feelings such as loneliness, betrayal, anxiety, and misery. Self-compassion involves recognising and finding solace in this shared experience. Importantly, it involves reaching out to others for support and compassion. We’re all in this together.

3 – Mindfulness – Mindfulness involves existing in the moment. It involves a state of hyper-awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings at any time. A mindfulness approach is judgment free, rather we’re simply noticing our experience of being. When we’re anxious or depressed, we tend to wrestle with these feelings and push them aside due to the discomfort they cause. However, this causes them to come back time and time again. Since our stream of consciousness is endless, and something we hold no control over. Simply noticing and exploring our thoughts and feelings as they arise, regardless of how uncomfortable they are, is vital in accepting and coming to terms with the difficult experiences of being human.

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