Compassion: Definition and Types of Compassion
What is compassion? Read on to learn the science behind what compassion is, how it’s distinct from similar concepts, and how to increase it.
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Are your curious about what is means to be compassionate, self-compassionate, or even radically compassionate? In this article, we'll talk about what compassion is and how it's distinguished from other types of compassion. We'll also talk about compassion fatigue and how to increase compassion.
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What Is Compassion? (A Definition)
Compassion Definition in Psychology
Compassion is a term that you are likely familiar with already--Merriam-Webster defines it as “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. Growing up, perhaps you were taught to treat others with compassion. But why are psychologists interested in compassion, and how does it relate to your well-being? Compassion is generally defined similarly in the field of psychology, with psychologist and emotion theorist Lazarus referring to it as “being moved by another's suffering and wanting to help” (Lazarus, 1991).
A Compassion Definition for Kids
The above definition comes from Lazarus’s influential text on emotion, Emotion and Adaptation (1991). Depending on your child’s age, this definition may be clear enough to convey what compassion means. You might also consider discussing related concepts that they may already be familiar with, such as kindness, to explain that compassion is when you want to help someone who is hurting or sad.
What Does It Mean to Have a Lack of Compassion?
It is generally theorized that humans have evolved to experience compassion because the altruistic behavior the emotion often triggers likely improved the survival of our ancestors (Goetz et al., 2010). However, people may experience levels of compassion that vary widely depending on context.
For example, research has found that individuals are more likely to feel compassion for individuals who are in their own social group (Hein et al. 2010). There may be an evolutionary basis for this whereby our ancestors were more likely to survive if they felt compassion for those within their social group and not for those from competitor groups (Gilbert, 2020).
These evolutionary drives can often feel irrelevant in the modern day—for example, we may be able to feel more compassion for people further away from us due to our increased global connectivity. The promising news is that research has shown that it is possible to increase compassion for others, which we will discuss below.
Sometimes lessened compassion can be seen in the context of certain psychological disorders such as autism. Since experiencing compassion relies heavily on an ability to recognize and relate to the emotions of others, it can be challenging to access for people who have difficulty reading other people.
The Opposite of Compassion
While compassion involves the desire to alleviate another’s suffering, Merriam-Webster highlights some antonyms for compassion such as “callousness” and “heartlessness.” These terms suggest at least indifference to, if not enjoyment of, another’s suffering.
Compassion Versus Empathy
Are compassion and empathy the same thing? Compassion and empathy may be confused because both emotions are ways of relating to the emotions of others. Indeed, in everyday conversation, we may use these terms interchangeably. However, it can be helpful to differentiate these concepts for the purposes of psychological research and practice.
For example, psychologists Singer and Klimecki make a clear distinction between the two as follows: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other person’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other” (2014).
A related distinction between compassion and empathy is that while an empathetic response might result in wanting to remove oneself from the emotional situation, a compassionate response entails a desire to help the other person (in essence, getting even closer to the emotional situation). This distinction is supported by the research. Psychologist Eisenberg found that people who felt compassion were more likely to help than people who felt empathic distress (2000).
Video: Compassion and the True Meaning of Empathy
In this TED Talk, you can watch Buddhist teacher and hospice caregiver Joan Halifax discuss compassion and empathy.
Compassion Versus Kindness
As with empathy above, while certain words like “compassion” and “kindness” might be used interchangeably in everyday life, psychologists have tried to delineate these and similar concepts for scientific research. For example, psychologist Paul Gilbert and colleagues highlighted that research into prosocial behavior has become more popular in recent years, but that the words within this research can become confusing due to their similarity, for example, “compassion, kindness, caring, cooperation, empathy, sympathy, love, altruism and morality” (Gilbert et al., 2019).
In this same article, they specifically explore the difference between “compassion” and “kindness,” concluding that compassion’s focus is to alleviate suffering and the causes of suffering, while the focus of kindness is to create the conditions for happiness and flourishing (2019). By this definition, compassion requires that you recognize suffering in another, while kindness does not. While these concepts are certainly related, the distinction between the two is important in the context of researching compassion’s causes and effects.
Can You Increase Compassion?
Research into compassion has grown over the last few decades in part due to its perceived benefits to oneself and others. Indeed, researchers have found various positive outcomes of experiencing compassion, including reduced depression and anxiety (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012). Knowing this, and since you are reading this article, you may be wondering how to increase your compassion.
One recent line of research has involved contemplative practices such as meditation as a means to increase benevolent feelings towards others. An example of this is a practice often referred to as loving-kindness meditation, during which an individual is guided to wish well upon others and to notice the associated, often pleasant, feelings. Long-term practice of this and similar meditation is associated with functional changes in the brain: experienced meditators who had trained in compassion were found to have a stronger neural response in an area of the brain associated with compassion than novice meditators (Lutz et al., 2008).
Fortunately, you don’t need to have practiced loving-kindness meditation for thirty years to reap its benefits. Researchers have found that even short-term practice can have benefits not only for other people in the person’s life but also for the person who is practicing (Singer & Klimecki, 2014, Frederickson et al., 2008). There are numerous guided loving-kindness meditations available for free online - you might try one or two out to see for yourself.
What Is Self-Compassion? (A Definition)
So far, we have focused on the definition of compassion that involves recognizing and wanting to alleviate another person’s suffering. A related psychological process is that of self-compassion, which psychologist Kristin Neff, one of the foremost scholars of self-compassion, describes as follows: “If individuals are self-compassionate when confronting suffering, inadequacy or failure, it means that they offer themselves warmth and non-judgmental understanding rather than belittling their pain or berating themselves with self-criticism” (Neff et al., 2007). Essentially, your attitude towards yourself is the same as the one you would have towards a loved one for whom you feel compassion.
How To Increase Self-Compassion
Research into self-compassion has found that it has numerous benefits for one’s well-being, including improved mental health and life satisfaction (Neff, 2004). The good news is that increasing your self-compassion is possible. For example, Neff and others have researched various successful self-compassion interventions, such as (Smeets et al., 2014):
If any of these techniques sound intriguing to you and you feel like they might be helpful, it could be worth trying them out to see if they improve your well-being.
Video: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion
In this video, you can watch Kristin Neff herself explain the importance of self-compassion and how it differs from self-esteem.
What Is Compassion Fatigue? (A Definition)
So far, we have considered the benefits of experiencing compassion and self-compassion. However, some research has explored compassion’s disadvantages, as in the case of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is most often recognized and discussed in the context of helping professions such as medicine, nursing, social work, and clinical psychology. Figley refers to compassion fatigue as “a more user-friendly term for secondary traumatic stress disorder, which is nearly identical to PTSD, except that it applies to those emotionally affected by the trauma of another” (Figley, 2002).
The phenomenon stems from the intense emotional investment that many individuals, including doctors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists, may have in their clients’ or patients’ situations. Even if you are not working in one of these professional contexts, you might still experience compassion fatigue related to close friends or family members.
Burnout vs Compassion Fatigue
While compassion fatigue denotes second-hand traumatization of individuals, burnout is “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy” (Maslach et al., 2001). Perhaps you have experienced burnout in the context of school or work. While an individual may be burned out due to compassion fatigue, burnout is generally considered a broader concept that does not have to involve compassion fatigue.
Compassion Fatigue Symptoms
Compassion fatigue symptoms can be emotional, physical, and work-related (Lombardo & Eyre, 2011). Some examples of symptoms are:
Compassion Fatigue Test
One of the oldest and most commonly used tests for compassion fatigue is Figley’s Compassion Fatigue Self Test (CFST; 1995). This test also measures burnout. Figley’s Compassion Fatigue Self Test can be found here.
Treating Compassion Fatigue
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of compassion fatigue, or have taken the test and have a score that indicates high compassion fatigue, the good news is that a lot of research has explored effective treatments for compassion fatigue. For example, the Accelerated Recovery Program (ARP) was designed specifically to reduce symptoms of compassion fatigue among caregivers (Figley, 2002). This treatment approach incorporates several different methods for addressing compassion fatigue, such as improving recognition of one’s symptoms, reflecting on one’s internal and interpersonal resources, and exploring different methods of self-care.
If you are suffering from compassion fatigue, it might also be helpful to remember the importance of self-compassion, which we discussed above.
Radical Compassion Definition
Philosopher Khen Lampert defined radical compassion as “a state of mind in which a person, in becoming aware of the pain and distress of another, is driven to concrete action toward changing that reality for the other” (2005). While the concept of compassion we have been discussing refers to the feeling of wanting to help another, the key differentiator here is that radical compassion entails translating this feeling into concrete action.
Quotes About Compassion
More Articles Related To Compassion
Here are a few additional articles that can help you keep learning about topics related to compassion.
Compassion is key to the human experience, driving prosocial behavior and improving countless lives. While we have seen that the feeling of compassion can lead to negative outcomes, as in the case of compassion fatigue, we have also seen that it generally has numerous benefits for both the person experiencing compassion and the person(s) for whom compassion is felt. The research also suggests that self-compassion can profoundly improve the well-being of individuals. With your well-being and the well-being of others in mind, how might you explore and cultivate compassion and self-compassion in your own life?