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10 Things Compassion is Not

What is compassion? Well, this remains a critical question, especially in compassion focused therapy and compassionate mind training where psycho-education around compassion is often where we start. And one way to answer this question is to perhaps highlight what compassion is not.

So here you go, ten things compassion is not…Compassion is not a feeling. It is not the same as love. And it's not the same as kindness. Compassion draws on the skill of empathy, but is not empathy. It is definitely not pity. And it is not simply being nice. There is nothing indulgent about compassion. It is not weak. Compassion is not easy. And it is good, but doesn't always feel good.

Ok, so let me explain.

First! Compassion is not a feeling, but can be textured by all sorts of feelings: warmth, tenderness, nervousness, sorrow, anger, determination, and many others. Rather, compassion is a motivation, orienting humans towards engaging with distress and suffering in self and others, and trying to alleviate or prevent that suffering through helpful action.

Second, compassion is not the same as love. There are many types of love. Compassion may involve Agape, Metta, Ishq, or Ren; a universal, unconditional love. However, loving someone need not be a prerequisite for compassion. We may show compassion to those we don't love or like, or perhaps even those we loathe; our enemies. So, too, we may show compassion to those parts of ourselves we dislike or loathe. We show compassion to our own dark sides.

Third, compassion is not the same as kindness. Kindness refers to actions intended to benefit others. Compassion refers to a sensitivity to suffering and taking action to try to alleviate or prevent that suffering. Compassionate action may be a specific form of kindness, and is also intended to benefit to others, but kindness doesn't always involve a compassionate motivation per se. Perhaps the defining feature of compassion, unlike kindness, is the presence of suffering.

Fourth, compassion draws on the skill of empathy, but is not empathy. Empathy is the ability to sense and understand the feelings and perspectives of somebody else, or even the different parts of ourselves. Empathy as a competency can be brought to lots of motivations, sometimes even competitive or cruel motivations. And sometimes it can be brought to a compassionate motivation. We create an empathic bridge between self and other, or self and self, to engage with suffering and take helpful action.

Fifth! Compassion is definitely not pity. Well, it is and it isn't! In the 1300s, "pity" was a synonym for "compassion". But more recently, negative connotations became attached to the word “pity”: superiority, judgement, contempt, dismissal, disregard and othering. Unlike pity, compassion motivates us to take helpful action. Where pity might look at a suffering person and say, "Oh, the poor thing," compassion rolls up its sleeves and says, "Right...what can I do to help?"

Sixth, compassion is not simply being nice. Of course, being nice is very...well...nice! And compassionate action can be delivered nicely...but not necessarily. Think of a child reaching for a saucepan of boiling water. Compassion motivates us to act, but with blunt, sharp urgency. Compassion is not always nice, agreeable or pleasing. It might be gruff, distant, angry...the list goes on. But it is always wise, strong, courageous and committed to being helpful...and very, very powerful.

Seventh, there is nothing indulgent about compassion. People worry that compassion, especially self- compassion, is indulgent, letting ourselves or others off the hook to simply feel good. But compassion is not about allowing ourselves or others to indulge in pleasure. It is about health and well-being, and living a good life. Sometimes, this is the much tougher road. Not that we berate ourselves into being good. That's not compassion either! It is the wisdom, strength, courage and commitment to make choices that support health and well-being.

Eighth, compassion is not weak. "It's dog eat dog out there! You gotta fight!! Compassion is weak." In fact, compassion is strong, grounded, stable and determined. And it has to be. Compassion is about suffering, and that can be scary. But we roll back our shoulders, lift our chin and find a sense of solid ground beneath our feet. We steady ourselves with the breath. We muster the strength to move towards suffering, whether that be someone else's suffering or our own. And when we feel strong enough to do that? The effect is powerful and sublime!

Ninth, compassion is not easy...Nope, not by a long shot! Compassionate engagement means being sensitive to suffering, and balancing sympathy and empathy with distress tolerance. Compassionate action means trying to be helpful, and working out just what might be the best way to alleviate or prevent suffering. Neither of these are easy! They take a lot of awareness, wisdom, strength, stability, courage, care, commitment, determination, practice, practice, practice...nope, not easy…!

And tenth, compassion is good, but it doesn't always feel good. Compassion is about alleviating and preventing suffering. And it focuses on our well-being now and into the future. As a result, compassion for others and ourselves can involve making the tough decisions, doing the hard yards, and sometimes sacrificing what might feel good now for what is good in the long term. Think of a compassionate parent: "Eat your vegetables, do your homework, brush your teeth." Compassion wants what is good for us!

So, there are ten things compassion is not! I’m interested in what you might think. Perhaps you agree with my list? Or perhaps you disagree? Let me know in the comments below. We actually explore and discuss what is compassion, and how to cultivate the compassionate mind, in my compassionate mind training course. If you are interested in learning more, please be in touch via email


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