What is Self-Compassion?

General Introduction to Compassion

The term compassion is often seen as a lofty term reserved for a religious or spiritual context. Now, with a growing body of good research on compassion, we are beginning to realize how powerful and effective compassion can be in our daily lives and as an element at the level of politics, culture, and social organization.

The terms compassion, empathy and sympathy are often synonymously, but research shows they are not. The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) defines sympathy as A feeling of pity or sorrow for the distress of another. While suggests a recognition of another’s distress, empathy is a step further. The definition of empathy in the AHD is The ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state. By this definition, there is a greater emotional connection between the person and the other, but it is not yet compassion. The definition of compassion, also from the AHD, is Deep awareness of the suffering of another accompanied by the wish to relieve it.

Thus sympathy is a recognition of another’s suffering, but at a distance. Empathy possesses a much closer identification with the suffering of another, to the point of feeling another’s suffering. However, compassion subsumes sympathy and empathy, with the identification of another’s suffering and even feeling the other’s suffering, but adds the essential element of motivation to relieve the suffering of another.

These are important differences in these terms. Empathy research has shown to be more associated with negative outcomes than with compassion. If someone is empathizing with another and feeling their pain, now we have two people suffering. In compassion, we have one person in the suffering and the other in a distinct awareness of the suffering which is then channelled directly into doing something about it for the other. The research shows that the best outcomes from work environments and interpersonal relationships are compassion and not empathy. People who just have empathy have poorer outcomes.

The Importance of Self Compassion

There are three modes of compassion: Giving compassion to others, receiving compassion from others, and being compassionate toward oneself. Beginning in the last 20 years or so, burnout in professional settings started gaining recognition. Then, with the pandemic, it became an immediate need with healthcare workers. This accelerated research and the adaptation of programs that meet these needs have made self compassion a more prominent issue in general.

The simplest way of illustrating how important compassion is to our wellbeing, is to start with the understanding that within our nervous system there are two separate divisions: the sympathetic nervous system (unrelated to the term sympathy, under discussion) and the parasympathetic nervous system. Briefly, the sympathetic nervous system is the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, system, which mobilizes us to maintain our survival. The parasympathetic nervous system is dominant when we are enjoying life, each other’s company, a walk in the woods on a balmy day, etc. Here there are feeling of engagement, rapport, caring, friendship, kinship, gratitude, wonder and so on. In the sympathetic mode, we are hypervigilant, fearful for our safety and our very existence.

The problem is, that when our survival mode is dominant, our enjoyment and caring as well as our abstract reasoning, are in the background. How many times have we said or done something out of fear or anger, then 15 minutes later wondered…why did I do (or say) that and wish we hadn’t. That was the survival brain taking over, pushing our social, caring brain into the shadows.

Why is this a problem? You may think, we all do that from time to time, we make amend; it’s a part of life. Here’s the issue: the level of stress in our society, as well as around the world, has been on the rise, each year being greater than the year before. Today, we are beset by matters of global survival. Our survival threats these days are all-encompassing. Add to that our personal difficulties finances, medical issues, and interpersonal difficulties, it is easy to live in a state where we feel constant insecurity or threat from things we often can’t do anything about.

This puts us on edge in our survival system, decreasing our ability to make good decisions, connect with others, enjoy life, and maintain emotional balance. Add to this a critical internal dialog, usually inherited from our family system, we have a problem. This can have the effect of keeping us in a dominant mode of elevated anxiety, isolation and survival, and less in the mode of caring and connection.

Recognizing the prevalence of negative internal dialog, the almost universal inability to be compassionate with oneself appears to be the mode least practiced, Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer developed the Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) program to help people learn to be more compassionate with themselves and bring this into all their relationships.

Compassion Is the Antidote

The MSC program is typically given as an 8-week program with an additional day in a mini-sent practice retreat. We start slow and each class building on the previous one and get where we can face some of the more difficult experiences in our lives.

The net effect is that, as we develop a positive, caring and nurturing internal dialog and relationship with ourselves, we become more open to connection with the people and the world around us; we make better decisions, have a greater sense of wellbeing, and much more. As evidence, they point to the fact that, without compassion, people become able to treat others and their environment callously and cause great suffering. It is easy to see how some people feel compassion is a necessity these days. And thus, learning self compassion and bringing it into every aspect of our lives is of vital importance.


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