Compassion is a quality that most of us strive for and find admirable in others. Yet we don’t seem to view self-compassion in the same way. Why is this? And how can we be compassionate towards ourselves and others? To answer these questions let’s start by defining compassion and distinguishing it from empathy.

Compassion Vs Empathy

The word compassion comes from the mid-14c word compassioun which means “a suffering with another”. This definition has not changed much through the years. The Cambridge Dictionary defines compassion as “a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them”.

Researchers have identified a four-part process for showing compassion:

1. Noticing that others are suffering

2. Making sense of suffering

3. Feeling empathic concern for suffering

4. Acting to alleviate suffering

With this framework, you can see that compassion starts with empathy—being able to understand another person’s feelings and see their perspective—and then goes one step further to alleviate the suffering. This extra action orientated step separates these two relates concepts.

Photo: Everton Vila

“When we’re looking for compassion, we need someone who is deeply rooted, is able to bend and, most of all, embraces us for our strengths and struggles.” – Brené Brown

Compassion Vs Self-Compassion

Compassion and self-compassion are defined in the same way. The only difference is the focus—others or ourselves. Unfortunately, when it comes to our own suffering we seem to raise the bar much higher. Instead of responding to difficulties with kindness and acceptance we become self-critical. Or we hide our feelings because we think others will think we’re weak and incompetent.

Photo: Cynthia Magana

Cultivating Compassion for Yourself

Having self-compassion doesn’t mean you’re going to become complacent and give up on your goals. Instead, self-compassion is about noticing your suffering, not judging any flaws, mistakes or failures, recognising that you’re not alone in your experience, and taking compassionate action to alleviate your pain.

Cultivating Compassion for Others

You can cultivate compassion for others by strengthening your capacity to apply the four-part process described above. In their book, Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations, Monica Worline and Jane Dutton provide an excellent blueprint for building personal and group compassion capability. The Greater Good Science Centre also has some excellent science-based practices for strengthening compassion and self-compassion.

Balancing Compassion for Self and Others

A recent study suggests that compassion and self-compassion don’t always go together. For instance, you may be a loving partner, devoted parent, caring friend and generous colleague. Yet the kindness you provide for others doesn’t extend to yourself. Taking time out for yourself is not selfish. It allows you to be reflective and recharge so that others get to experience the best version of you more often.

“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” – Nelson Mandela

Also from Positive Legacies:

Grit Defined

Battling Your Inner Demons

Sleep: The Foundation for Positive Change

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  • Sarah Schimschal

    Founder and Director at Positive Legacies

    Sarah is an accomplished leader, coach and researcher with over 20 years’ experience working across different industries including education, manufacturing, retail, hospitality and recreation. Sarah is passionate about helping people to thrive by uncovering new energising pathways to reach personal and professional fulfilment. Sarah holds a BA in Training and Development, MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and is currently undertaking her PhD. Her research is focused on developing grit and related positive psychological constructs.