Understanding and Cultivating Compassion


Compassion (n): a strong feeling of sympathy for people who are suffering and a desire to help them.[1]

Compassion is something we can feel or have, something we can even be filled with. It encourages social connectedness. A lack of social connection leaves individuals feeling lonely and isolated, which can have a negative impact on one’s mental and physical health and well-being.

Compassion is something which we can cultivate through conscious awareness and effort. It’s common knowledge that in order to maintain or improve one’s physical health, a good diet and regular exercise are essential. What many people underestimate is the power of compassion and conscious awareness in order to keep our psychosocial health in good form. Perhaps the greatest function and benefit of compassion is its ability to foster strong connections.

One of the most common motivators for people to seek therapy is the feeling of loneliness of isolation, or lack of connection to others. Of course, disorders and conditions that affect a person’s quality of life are strong reasons to seek professional help, but a lack of authentic interpersonal connection is going to make any condition all the more difficult to deal with.

This ‘strong feeling of sympathy for people who are suffering and a desire to help them’ can be directed not only towards others but towards ourselves. Very often, compassion towards others comes naturally, and there is even a scientific outlook that implies it’s evolutionary function. Humans, as a species, have survived thus far partly as a result of our propensity for community. Compassion is defined above as ‘sympathy for those who are suffering’. Sympathy was analysed by Charles Darwin in Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Darwin asserted that ‘for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.’[2]

There is an old proverb that tells us: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Compassion serves a communal function by encouraging us to take action to help others who are suffering or struggling, thereby protecting other members of the community and promoting connection and bonding, which increase our safety in the face of threat.

Furthermore, perhaps what drives us to be compassionate is the identification of the Self in the Other. Offering food or shelter to a person affected by homelessness, for example, is an act of compassion that comes from an understanding, experiential or imagined, of how it would be to be in that person’s situation, and even perhaps a sense of hope that such an attitude would be offered to the compassionate individual if the tables were turned.

Unfortunately, compassion towards ourselves seems to come less naturally. Very often our inner dialogue and narrative is critical and cynical, and speaks to us in ways we wouldn’t consider speaking to another person. Self-compassion can be cultivated, however, and is, in fact, good for our overall health.


Self-Compassion: Kindness, Humanity, and Mindfulness

Compassion is a fundamental trait of any therapist. A therapist who doesn’t show compassion towards a client is one who doesn’t create a therapeutic environment for healing, which is obviously counterintuitive. However, the compassion offered by a therapist is contained within the session, meaning a client can only avail of that compassion for a set, limited amount of time. Integral to therapeutic practice, then, is education on self-compassion.

Leading expert on self-compassion, Kristin Neff, PhD, writes extensively on the subject. In her work she outlines three main elements of self compassion; self kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.


Self Kindness

Neff highlights the importance of understanding that failure and feelings of inadequacy are common to all people, and need not be met with harsh criticism and judgment. All too often when we experience failure or don’t meet the standards we set for ourselves, we respond with avoidance of our pain or harsh criticism that serves no benefit to our well-being. The reality is that we are bound to get things wrong and make mistakes time and time again, but this is not a fault. It is a way of learning and developing a greater awareness of ourselves and the reality we live in. People who understand this  and accept it, instead of denying reality or fighting against it, which only results in stress and frustration, tend to cultivate feelings of balance and loving kindness towards ourselves, which cultivates within us a sense of emotional equanimity.[3]


Common Humanity

During periods of suffering, it can seem as though we are the only person suffering the specific circumstances. It is a feeling that creates a disconnect between the ‘I’ and the rest of the world, resulting in potentially crippling feelings of loneliness and isolation. However, in times of suffering it is important, even life-saving, to remember that we are not alone. An integral part of the human experience is suffering, being vulnerable, and being imperfect.[4]

When self-compassion is cultivated, it brings with it an awareness that we all suffer, and a feeling of connection to our fellow man through that shared experience. Connection to others is key in fostering a sense of meaning of purpose in our lives, which in turn can alleviate the weight of much suffering.



In order to give ourselves the best chance at successfully cultivating self-compassion, it is key to develop a sense of mindfulness. Mindfulness is just that, a sense, like sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. It is something that must be developed and honed, however, as the world we live in today is one of constant stimulation and bombardment, which can distort our inner balance and harmony. Through mindfulness, we can gain a broad perspective of our experiences and circumstances, and recognise that, though our suffering may be difficult, we are not alone. The objective awareness one gains from a mindful approach to life allows us to relate to others who are suffering, thus increasing the feeling of loving kindness and connectedness.


Cultivating Self-Compassion through Mindfulness

As mentioned earlier, self-compassion doesn’t always come naturally. In order to cultivate it, we need to take a mindful approach to ourselves and our outlook on life. There are many wonderful practitioners in the area of mindfulness, compassion, loving kindness and meditation whose work it is worth taking some time to explore. Contemporary Buddhist practitioners like Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, and Sharon Salzberg all speak of compassion and the importance of love for the self and others. Much of Kristin Neff’s work relates closely to the work of the practitioners mentioned.

Below is an exercise that can be found on Neff’s own website, selfcompassion.org. It serves to demonstrate how, as we mentioned earlier, we generally treat others with much more kindness and compassion than we give to ourselves. This exercise encourages us to see ourselves as a friend, and treat ourselves accordingly. All you need is a pen and a sheet of paper.

Begin by sitting comfortably and bringing your attention to your breath. Thoughts may come and go, but all you need to do in this moment and notice the breath. Notice how it fills your lungs without any action needed, and how it falls out, naturally. Spend some minutes just noticing, with as little judgment as possible from your thinking mind. Note that if there is some judgment, be that of your thoughts or your physical sensations, that’s ok. Just notice, and return your attention to your breathing.

Begin the exercise itself by remembering a time when a friend was struggling with their sense of self. Maybe they were suffering from anxiety, self doubt, or feelings of sadness and depression. Consider and write down how you would respond to that friend in their time of need.

Next, bring your attention to a time when you were suffering or struggling. Consider and write down how you would typically respond to yourself in such a situation. Be as honest as you can with yourself when writing down your response.

Observe: Is there a difference in how you responded to yourself, when compared with how you responded to a friend. What was different?

Finally, write down how you would have responded to yourself if you were the friend you were trying to help.

Hopefully, this simple exercise will help you understand how we are inclined to treat ourselves in a vastly different manner than we would treat a friend. In cultivating self-compassion, we must attempt to move away from the cynical, harsh self-criticism that we often direct at ourselves and instead become the friend we need.



[1]  In: Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. 2020. Compassion. [online] Available at: <https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/compassion> [Accessed 16 May 2020].

[2] Darwin, C., 1901. The Descent Of Man And Selection In Relation To Sex. London: J. Murray.

[3] Neff, K., n.d. Definition And Three Elements Of Self Compassion | Kristin Neff. [online] Self-Compassion. Available at: <https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/> [Accessed 16 May 2020].

[4] Neff, K., n.d. Definition And Three Elements Of Self Compassion | Kristin Neff. [online] Self-Compassion. Available at: <https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/> [Accessed 16 May 2020].