Compassion: What is it and what does it mean in a relationship?

What does it mean to have compassion?

While compassion can have many definitions, those who research it and other emotions define compassion as, “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”  Compassion is closely related to empathy, altruism and love, though each emotion is unique.   

  • How to practice self-compassion
  • Is compassion a personality trait?
  • What are examples of compassion?
  • Benefits of compassion
  • Compassion in relationships

Compassion can be shown in a myriad of different ways and is overwhelmingly viewed as a positive personal trait.  Compassion is often thought of as occurring between two people, but that does not necessarily have to be the case.  People can be compassionate towards animals, nature, or even themselves.  While empathy allows you to relate to the pain of another entity, compassion involves the desire and action to alleviate their pain. 

How to practice Self-Compassion

The approach to practicing self-compassion is very similar to the approach to practicing compassion towards others.   There are three basic elements to the learned art and practice of self-compassion.  They are:

  1. First comes a recognition of suffering and a desire to heal
  2. Second comes a move towards non-judgement 
  3. Third is the acceptance of the human condition, recognizing but not accosting ourselves for shortcomings

Often we find ourselves judging what has happened and using the tools of guilt self-deprecating behavior to force and resist the human condition.  Done often enough, this can lead to self-hate which if left to evolve further turns into diluting realty to avoid the pain brought on by our own actions,  judgment and soon we become caught in a cycle. 

The same downward spiral can manifest in outward relationships where how we might use tactics of belittlement against others to inflate our own esteem in order to hide and not deal with the feelings of our own shortcomings.  In both cases, self-compassion is the better answer.  

When we learn to practice self-compassion, which is really a branch of the tree of self-love, we also then learn to practice compassion on others and similarly love others.  Learning how to show compassion to yourself is really the first stepping stone to showing it to others. That is one reason why self work is the most important work you’ll ever do.

Our recommended audio course on 'How to practice Self-Compassion'.

Is compassion a personality trait?

While there are arguments regarding this particular question, more and more evidence suggests that compassion is, at least to some degree, something we are born with.  Several recent studies performed with infants and chimpanzees have suggested that both with engage in helpful behaviors without intrinsic motivation – in other words, they assist without expecting a reward for their helpful behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, compassion is considered a desirable quality and is beneficial when it comes to finding a mate. 

“Compassion is a complex process that is innate, determined in part by individual traits, and modulated by a myriad of conscious and unconscious factors, immediate context, social structures and expectations.”

We are all born with the ability to show compassion, but it can also be learned.  We can learn to identify our feelings of sympathy or empathy towards another person and translate them into compassion by taking action.

What are examples of compassion?

There are a multitude of different ways that you can show compassion to loved ones, friends, strangers, etc.  Here are a few examples of ways you can be compassionate in your everyday life.

Listen to Understand. 

So many times in either a conversation or argument we are quick to offer our opinions or points of view because we want to be heard.  Or, we may simply want to be right!  The empathetic muscle teaches us that is exactly what the other person wants too.  The practice of compassionate provides them the opportunity to be heard because their want is a form of suffering, or a desire.  To provide for that need is for us to listen.  It doesn’t mean we have to agree!  But, by listening to understand and being curious we fulfill the desire.   When you do reply, do so warmly.  Use vocabulary that shows your understanding and interest.  This is especially important if someone comes to you to voice problems or concerns in their daily lives, but this type of compassion can be shown in every conversation.

Be Considerate.

When interacting with someone show compassion by keeping their feelings in mind.  During conversations, try to be polite and tactful.  Show understanding by forgiving minor lapses.  For example, your coworker likely did not intend to be five minutes late to work this morning.  When they arrive in obvious distress, take a moment to let them know that these things happen and no harm was done.  Showing compassion in this manner is just one small way to make a big impact. 

Show Empathy. 

One of the most important things to do when showing empathy is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  Try to understand their viewpoint and learn why they feel the way they do, even if your own views are fundamentally different.  When speaking with someone, put aside your judgements.  Try to identify any shared values you might have and reflect on those.

“Empathy facilitates prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced, so that people behave in a more compassionate manner.”

Perform random acts of kindness.

This is one of the easiest ways to incorporate compassion into your daily life.  Hold the door for the person coming in behind you.  Say please and thank you to the cashier you interact with at the grocery store.  Compliment someone on a new hairstyle or piece of clothing.  When these small acts of kindness become a natural part of your daily routine, you are showing compassion toward your fellow man without even thinking about it.

Be Honest. 

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, communicating with others openly and honestly is a form of compassion.  When conversing with someone, we talked about listening to understand, not to reply.  How can we actually discuss and deal with what is really going on beneath the surface however if there is not honesty?  Be honest with yourself and be honest (gently if necessary) also with those you are communicating with.

Benefits of Compassion:

Being compassionate towards others results in many health benefits for both parties.  Those who show more compassion have better self-awareness and are more mindful of themselves in a multitude of situations.  Acting compassionately also grows and strengthens social relationships.  This can result in more active engagement and open communication between parties which could be the answer to how can I improve my father daughter relationship. Practicing compassionate behavior and creating meaningful connections with others has been shown to increase resiliency to disease and may even results in longer lifespans.  With regard to self-compassion, studies have found that being kind to yourself results in lower levels of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. 

Boundless Compassion

Boundless Compassion

Creating a Way of Life

Compassion in relationships:

Compassion and love, though intertwined, are two different values.  Practicing compassion towards yourself and your partner can help to cultivate a stronger, healthier relationship.  Here are a few ways you can show compassion towards your partner.

  1. Seek out the positive – it is all too easy to fixate on the negative things about your partner. Pet peeves can begin to grate on your nerves and cause you to lose your temper.  Instead, shift your focus to the things you love about your partner.  Instead of hating how much time they spend at work, recognize their incredible work ethic and be proud of what they accomplish.  This small shift in thinking can have a great impact on how you feel about your partner and your relationship with them.

2. Create a safe space – let your partner know through your words and actions that your relationship is a place where they can voice their thoughts and concerns without fear of judgement. Accept your partner, be their confidante, and refrain from voicing judgmental sentiments.

3. Communicate openly – along with creating a safe space, create a relationship where communication between the two parties is open, honest, and warm. Give advice when asked for, be truthful about even the most sensitive topics, and convey your words in such a way that you both feel comfortable continuing the conversation. 

4. Listen with intent – when your partner opens up to you, be sure you truly listen to what they’re saying. It’s easy to become distracted by cell phones, televisions, children, etc., but make the effort to give your partner your full attention when they wish to discuss important things.  This, along with a safe space and open communication, will help your relationship to flourish.

“Compassion is the wish for another being to be free from suffering; love is wanting them to have happiness.” – The Dalai Lama

Compassion, love and empathy are all vital aspects of successful relationships.  Find ways to exercise each of them.  Start small and watch your efforts develop into something much greater as you hone your abilities and discover new ways to practice compassion, empathy and love. Maybe, with a little compassion, you will be able to turn around a failing relationship.

Why is compassion so important?

Compassion is so important because we are human beings who suffer and compassion is an act that leads to healing.  

Nobody is perfect.  We are all going through our own struggles.  Even the successful businessman in the sharp suit and fancy car has his struggles.  It may be he is about to loose his partnership at a prominent law firm because beneath the surface he struggles with addictions and alcohol and his performance has been declining.  Compassion compels us to reach out and help, to intercede and help him to slow down.

The model who travels the world, riding first class wherever she goes and invited to all of the swankiest parties.  She may suffer from Anorexia and hate the way she looks.  From the outside, it’s difficult to tell what demons are churning within.  Compassion beckons us to help her see the qualities that exist beyond the surface.

Another scenario, imagine a child sitting lonely off to the side of a basketball court.  He longs to play with the other kids and be a part of the team but he is too shy to ask and has never felt included.  So, in his mind he believes it to the point of never taking a step forward.  Compassion nudges us forward to be inclusive and invite him into a game.  

In some form or another we are all suffering.  There are amazing moments or periods of time where there is no to little doubt, bellies are full or families are whole.  Compassion is so important because those moments are quick and fleeting.  By caring, giving, loving and showing compassion we can continuously defend against the natural order of human suffering.