Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.     copyright12-10,3-12,7-12,5-13

ABSTRACT:  Compassion is defined and described as a very valuable social feeling.  The psychological processes involved in compassion are described, and ways of enhancing one’s compassion are detailed.

KEY WORDS:  compassion, love, empathy, acceptance



Wisdom, maturity, and compassion are the keys to living wisely, deeply, and compassionately (which in my opinion is a life with the greatest likelihood of including peacefulness, success, loving and gratifying relationships, good self-esteem, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment).

Compassion is an attitude and a feeling state composed of warm concern for another with regard to what we perceive as the negative feelings or life status of that other person, together with a desire for positive life status and outcomes for the person.  (Webster’s Ninth Collegiate dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”)  Compassion is based in an empathic understanding of the status and outcomes of that person or persons.  It implies that one will manage his behavior so that it will not lead to negative life status and outcomes for the person of concern, and it may (but need not) lead to actions designed to enhance the life status and outcomes of the person.  Theoretically one could also feel compassion for more than one person, as well as for non-human beings and for the earth, as well as for oneself.

Compassion is the sympathetic tug at our heartstrings that we feel upon observing or becoming aware of a person’s emotional pain, distress, or suffering.  We might feel compassion for the bereaved, for a rejected spouse or lover, for victims of an earthquake, or for a child disappointed in grades or sports accomplishments.  We might feel compassion for those suffering from living under a brutal government.  Compassion does not require that suffering be great to qualify, and we can even feel compassion for those suffering from the results of their own poor choices, such as the genuine grief of a spouse being divorced for having an affair.  (Self-induced suffering can, of course, be a larger behavioral pattern in the person’s life that is causing him significant problems.)

If it is expanded to concern for all persons, compassion is like having a loving attitude toward the whole world, with the addition of wanting any suffering and distress to be alleviated.

How Compassion Is Valuable To Us All

Human beings thrive emotionally on being understood, having our feelings and concerns recognized by others, and knowing that others are positively disposed toward us—all elements of compassion.  We all warm to and value people who relate to us in these ways.  (Only those who are extremely afraid of losing love and being betrayed reject compassion and refuse to allow themselves to warm to it.)  The more people we have around us who have warm, positive concern for us, the more comfortable we are (and the more likely we are to also be compassionate ourselves).  Almost everyone would choose to have more rather than fewer compassionate persons as friends and associates.

The Processes of Compassion

Compassion occurs through an empathic process of being aware of the emotional state of another.  Deepening and sharpening our empathy capacities can therefore broaden and deepen our compassion.

Compassion is above all else a feeling of warm concern for the person and wanting the person’s distress or suffering to be reduced.  This requires that we be able to step outside of our personal concerns sufficiently to be genuinely concerned for another person—concerned for that person’s sake only and not for ourselves or regarding the impact of the situation on ourselves.  The desire for a positive outcome for another must flow from the warm, positive feeling of connection that we feel with the other person, even if we do not know that person.  This relationship may be the fellow-feeling that we can have with any other person, simply because we are both human beings.

The benefits of our feeling of positive concern for others is maximized if we can relate in this way to all others and not just to our closest friends and relatives.  If we are concerned only for those closest to us and not for more distant persons, compassion might simply be called love.

Using our capacities for empathy, we sense the psychological state of the other person and come to appreciate the subtleties and complexity of that person’s feelings and thoughts, including the distress that she feels.  This requires experiencing, albeit from a distance, the other person’s feelings and intuiting her thoughts, and doing this for long enough that we have time to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the person.

Using our empathic understanding of the other person and her distress or negative psychological state, we imagine a better state or outcome for the person, whether that is simply relief of suffering or the achievement of a positive feeling state.  The quality of our empathy will determine whether our imagined improved condition for that person is what the person would actually want or benefit from.  If we are motivated to possibly take action to help, it can be even more effective to find out directly from the person what outcomes she views as desirable.  (There will be times, of course, when we “know” that the outcomes desired by the person are in fact not in her best interest, which leaves us with a dilemma.)

Having compassion does not require that we act to create the desired positive outcome for the other person, but to do so would flow naturally from feeling compassion.

It is important that we not be envious of another person’s positive outcomes, or else we could not sincerely want positive outcomes for him.

What Compassion Is Not

Compassion is not simply concern, since it must also include desire that the other person’s distress be alleviated.

Compassion is not simply helping others, since it must also include felt concern.  Helping others may flow from compassion, but it can also be a way for the helper to avoid feeling another’s pain.

Compassion is not love, since love involves also (1) wanting to be close or closer to the loved one and (2) wanting and acting to bring about what is best for the loved one, in a proactive sense as well as by alleviating distress.  Compassion and love do share, however, a similar warm, positive feeling or stance toward the others involved, as well as a desire for those others to feel “good” rather than “bad.”

Feeling compassion for others does not aim at getting anything back.  It does not seek reciprocity.

Compassion is not pity, since pity is defined as “sympathetic sorrow…,” while compassion is awareness and concern regarding another’s distress.

Compassion is not feeling sorry for another, since feeling sorry for someone is often an isolating response rather than warm concern (along the lines of “I sure wouldn’t want to be that person”).  (In recent years, many people inaccurately understand pity to be feeling sorry for another.)

Compassion is not sympathy, which is defined (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary) as a relationship in which things affecting one person similarly affect the other, as emotional or intellectual accord, or as “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another” (which is more similar to “empathy”).

Compassion is not felt from a consciously superior position, since that would probably not include a warm, positive feeling toward the other person.

Most people whom we perceive to be compassionate are stable and trustworthy in their compassion—i.e., if they have compassion for us today, they will have compassion for us another time also, given the same circumstances.  There are some, though, who mouth concern but whose feelings are capricious.  One test for this might be whether the person claiming to be concerned is actually in touch with the pain of the person he is concerned about.  To feel compassion involves feeling another’s pain empathically, though in diluted form.  The person feeling compassion chooses to pay this price because feeling concern for and relatedness with others is desirable.  Those who do not wish to pay this price skip the step of contemplation of the other person’s situation and pain, not living with it long enough to have a comprehensive empathic sense of the other person’s psychological state.  Some of these people, who wish not to feel the other person’s pain, immediately throw significant energy into alleviation of that pain.


Enhancing or maximizing compassion in us all is desirable because the more connection we feel with others (and especially with all others), the more giving, understanding, and trustworthy we are likely to be toward others (and they toward us).  The concern and positive relationship that we feel with others and the desire that we feel that they have positive (rather than negative) status and outcomes make it more likely that we will express that concern to others, and they make it more likely that, going beyond compassion, our concern will turn into action aiming to achieve positive outcomes for others.

Since compassion requires empathy, for appreciating the experience and psychological state of the other, enhancing our empathic capacities can increase our capacity for compassion.  The biggest barriers to better empathy are being inaccurate in our understanding of others, being unwilling to feel the negative feeling states of others, and judging and rejecting those whose behavior we dislike.  Having better empathy calls on us to (1) understand others in greater detail and more accurately, (2) be better able to tolerate first our own and then others’ negative states and distress so that we can truly understand them, and (3) accept others as they are, so that we can feel compassion even for those whose behavior we find repugnant.  It is easy to feel sorry for those who suffer because of “misfortune” but much harder to feel genuine concern about and to wish for a better state for those who have harmed others (e.g., those who have murdered or molested others) or those who suffer because of their own “bad” choices (anorexics, adulterers, etc.)!

Understanding others in greater detail and more accurately requires learning more about the subtleties of thoughts, feelings, and motives of people.  Paying greater attention to our own complexity is a first step—recognizing all of our emotions, even the unpleasant and embarrassing ones, noticing all of our thoughts, even those we don’t like, and acknowledging how we criticize, judge, and reject others.  Applying the same standards to ourselves that we apply to others can be enlightening!

Our ability to tolerate the negative states of others that we experience empathically can be enhanced by learning to tolerate and live with our own negative emotions better.  For most of us this means accepting those negative feelings and allowing ourselves to really experience them instead of automatically denying or repressing them before we process them or allow them to fade.  This does not mean liking negative states but simply allowing ourselves to experience them fully instead of immediately and automatically pushing them away or altering them.

Accepting others even when we don’t like them or like their behavior is a different approach to interpersonal relations than most of us learn growing up.  Most of us use rejection and harming others as our way of trying to get them to change their behavior (hurting, shaming, embarrassing, criticizing, ignoring, distancing, guilt-tripping), but a more positive approach is to accept everyone basically as a person but use communication and education to seek change in their behavior.  This means that we would state clearly what we don’t like to the other person (after considering honestly whether the other person’s behavior is truly harmful rather than just inconvenient for us).  We would ask the other person for the specific change of behavior that we want, and if possible we would suggest other behaviors that could achieve that person’s goals just as well or better.  This communication should be done with an accepting or neutral rather than a critical tone, since a critical tone is another method of punishing.  Many people will object that if you don’t punish such people, they will never change, but these people are assuming that the way they themselves were treated (punishment) is how others should be treated, and they may never have experienced the pull toward positive behavior that genuine acceptance creates.  It is a fact that an accepting atmosphere leads to more significant change than a punishing environment, partly because the target person has no need to fight against the request for change.

Compassion has as its motive power the desire for the alleviation of distress or suffering in others, so in order to have compassion, one must care about others and their experience.  Caring means that the feelings of others matter to one and that one is interested enough in others’ status that one is aware of their experience.  In our modern world many people restrict their caring only to those close to them, so compassion could be enhanced by expanding that circle of caring.  It might seem unbearably unpleasant to be aware of the distress of so many others around the world when it seems so impossible to do anything meaningful about it, but an individual (such as yourself) who approaches everyone around him (acquainted or not) with compassion, does influence those others to be more caring and compassionate themselves, and this influence can spread.

Compassion is enhanced the more we are capable of selfless concern.  We are naturally motivated to take care of ourselves and do right by ourselves, but we can also consider the needs of others independent of how it might affect us, if we practice having this consideration, particularly by seeing things from the point of view of the other person (utilizing accurate empathy).  In any case, we would not be affected negatively by the diminished distress of the person for whom we feel compassion, as long as we were not envious of her improvement!

Compassion is enhanced through feeling kinship with all other persons.  We can care meaningfully about not only those we know and love but about everyone on the planet, if we consider and appreciate that every one of them has the same emotions, most of the same thoughts and fears, and the same desires and basic life goals that we do, even if those occur in a different language and a different culture.  We cannot influence the lives of all those other people separately, but we can through our attitude toward every individual make this a more comfortable and encouraging world for everyone.

In the “real world,” our interest in and concern for others often arises from a felt similarity (thinking or feeling that we are like the other person), but this will tend to restrict our compassion to those whom we perceive to be like ourselves.  It is quite possible to extend your compassion to everyone if your warm, positive regard for others includes everyone and you are willing to see deep enough into another person to realize that he or she is in fact just like you in many meaningful ways.

Since love and compassion have in common the desire for the distress of others to be alleviated, compassion can be enhanced by expanding your circle of love—i.e., feeling love even toward strangers.  This loving attitude toward strangers is another way to approach being compassionate.  It adds greatly to our own felt life experience to approach everyone with a loving attitude.

To practice compassion, identify some other person or persons to focus on.  Contact a place within yourself where you feel warm and positive, and focus on the other person while feeling that warm, positive feeling, including them in that warm, positive space.  Attend carefully to that person, with interest, in order to empathically understand his situation and feelings, particularly feelings of distress or suffering.  Take time to see the whole person and understand him comprehensively.  Relate to that person through your memory of having had similar feelings yourself.  Let concern for the other person arise in your feelings, and be aware of your desire for his distress to be alleviated.  Let this stance guide your future actions as they might affect that other person, whether or not you act directly to alleviate his distress of the moment. 

In order to make compassion a central part of your personality, try to maintain this concern and warm, positive stance toward everyone you interact with, as well the other people in the world.