WHAT IS COMPASSION
When people hear the word “compassion”, they usually think about kindness or pity. But scientific studies have proven that the core of compassion is strength and courage.
Studying the existing fossil record found in our ancestors has revealed that during hundreds of thousands of years, the hominids evolved into a species that actively cared not only about children, but also about the elderly, the wounded and the sick. This means they had reasons to take care of them in a thoughtful and conscious way, which is the key to the compassionate human motivation (Spikins, Rutherford and Needham, 2010).
The word "compassion" comes from the Latin root compati, which means “suffer with”. Even though it is a very common word in many languages, its precise meaning is difficult to determine and diverse in dictionaries, and also among the general population. As we will see in other pages of this site, the key to compassion, as we perceive it today, is not only to accompany suffering or the mere “suffer with”, but also and principally is in the motivation to alleviate it and acquire the skills to do so.
Compassion has also been associated with “commiseration” o “pity” in dictionaries in Spanish and other languages. This meaning is far from how this word is used among the current scientific literature. Scientific studies on compassion nowadays are oblivious to the aspect of a certain superiority and contempt connotation towards the person suffering, which will mean to associate it with commiseration and pity. Compassion is a powerful motivation which implies intention and not mere reaction, but above all, it is always found among equals. (Simón, 2014)
Definitions of Compassion
Although the term “compassion” is increasingly used in the research field and clinical practice, the discussion about its definition is far from settled (Kirby, Tellegen and Steindl, 2017). In the last two decades, many definitions have been proposed. A pioneer in the cultivation and study of compassion is Kristin Neff, a researcher on social psychology. She approaches compassion as a healthy way of communicating with oneself. (Neff, 2003). Her work is mainly focused on Self-Compassion,which has three different components:
- Self- kindness: Being kind and warm towards oneself instead of self-judging or self-criticizing when one suffers, makes a mistake or fails.
- Common humanity: Recognize that suffering is part of life and that we are not alone in our suffering. The experiences that “I” go through are part of our human condition, rather than an isolated feeling. It is no different to how the others feel.
- Mindfulness: The ability to observe and be present when we go through painful situations and accept them as they are, without judging, suppressing or overidentifying with them.
Goetz, Keltner and Simon-Thomas (2010) present a very different approach about compassion. They conceptualize compassion as an affective state, defining it like “the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help”. In this definition, compassion is not only towards oneself, but towards others.
Other researchers have adopted a wider perspective about compassion, suggesting that it’s a multidimensional and dynamic process that implies both affective processes and cognitive components. For instance, Geshe Thupten Jinpa (2010, in Jazaieri et al., 2013), who developed a training in cultivating compassion, highlighted that there are four key elements in compassion:
- Awareness of suffering (cognitive/empathic awareness)
- Sympathetic concern related to emotional experience created by suffering (affective component)
- A wish to see relief of that suffering (intention) and
- A disposition to help relieve that suffering (motivational)
In a unified review of all definitions and components of how to measure compassion, Clara Strauss and other collaborators (Strauss et al., 2016) describe compassion as a process that implies activating 5 elements that refer both to self-compassion and to compassion towards others:
- Recognizing suffering
- Understanding the universality of suffering in human experience
- Feeling empathy for the person suffering and connecting with their distress(emotional resonance)
- Tolerating uncomfortable feelings aroused in response to the person suffering (for instance, distress, anger, fear) while being open and accepting towards them.
- Motivation to act/acting to alleviate suffering.
Paul Gilbert’s model
We believe that a more complete definition of compassion, apart from including the affective and cognitive aspects (Jazaieri et. al , 2013, Strauss et al.,2016), it also has to include and develop a behavioural component,and a clinical application model. This is what Paul Gilbert (2014), founder of the Compassion Focused Therapy ,has developed.
Gilbert (2014) considers compassion as a motivation and a social mentality for self-caring and caring for others. This can go in three different directions: we can experiment compassion towards ourselves,towards others or receive compassion from others. He defines compassion as “a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it”.A key element of this definition is self-confidence, that is, the capacity of recognizing one’s vulnerability and also strengths and virtues in oneself and others, in order to generate warm, calm and secure feelings as a result of mistakes, failures, setbacks and emotional suffering inherent to existing.
- Care for well-being: Motivation to being kind and sensitive with oneself and the others, resulting in showing a desire to help, take care and alleviate distress.
- A sensitivity to emotions and needs for oneself and the others with attention, openness and closeness to the source of pain, instead of avoiding it.
- Sympathy: Being open, able to being moved and emotionally engage with our feelings, suffering and needs, and that of others.
- Distress tolerance: Ability to notice or tolerate hard feelings, memories or painful situations, instead of avoiding or separate from them.
- An empathic understanding of how our mind works, why we feel what we feel, how our feelings are and extend that compassion to others.
- Accepting, with no judgementor condemnation, developing a non-hostile orientation without patronizing nor being submissive towards ourselves and the others.
The second compassion mindset shares with the previous definitions of compassion the fact that it is an action-orientedapproach to compassion, and which comprises six skills or competencies to take action to prevent or alleviate one’s own suffering and that of others (see outer ring in figure):
Attention: Compassionate awareness of attentional biases. Noticing where attention is moving when difficulties arise, and practice adjusting it smoothly, returning to a safe space. This aspect is directly related to the practice of mindfulness and presence.
Imagery: A key aspect of imagination is that it can produce physiological responses similar to “real” experiences. Image work is essential for cultivating a secure foundation and generating a “compassionate self” that embodies the attributes of strength, courage, warmth, and self-confidence.
Reasoning: Training in perspective shifts and helpful questions (Socratic dialogue), so that thoughts can be generated from a compassionate view of the experience and the person. From the generation of a strong and wise compassionate identity, a mental space for compassionate reflection and metacognition is acquired. For example, a widely used exercise in CFT is writing a compassionate letter to yourself.
Feeling: Connecting emotionally with feelings of joy, equanimity, longing for self and others well-being, empathic connection and interpersonal resonance, is associated with optimal psychological adjustment and a drastic decrease in psychopathology (Hoffman, Grossman and Hinton, 2011).
Behaviour: Empezando siempre por el autocuidado más básico, a nivel sensorial y físico, lAlways starting with the most basic self-care, sensory and physical, the key to compassionate behaviour is having the strength and courage to reach out and commit to things that are difficult, not just helpful and kind behaviours. It is important to distinguish genuine compassion from submissive behaviour, which is associated with seeking the approval of others or preventing their rejection. Behaviours of genuine compassion involve elaborating (wisely) the actions and behaviours that bring us closer to what we avoid, in order to liberate ourselves from suffering.
Di Bello, M., Carnevali, L., Petrocchi, N., Thayer, J. F., Gilbert, P., y Ottaviani, C. (2020). The compassionate vagus: a meta-analysis on the connection between compassion and heart rate variability. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 116, 21-30.
Spikins, P.A., Rutherford, H.E. y Needham, A.P. (2010) From homininity to humanity: Compassion from the earliest archaics to modern humans. Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, 3, 303–326.
Strauss, C., Lever Taylor, B., Gu, J., Kuyken, W., Baer, R., Jones, F. and Cavanagh, K. (2016) What is compassion and how can we measure it? A review of definitions and measures. Clinical Psychology Review, 47. pp. 15-27. ISSN 0272-7358