Why Compassion is NOT a Dirty Word

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Though compassion is about understanding, empathy and forgiveness, it so often gets a bad rep.  It is often linked with pity and excuse-making, but it is so much more than that. 

So what actually is compassion?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others”.  To begin with, I think it’s important to put aside our emotional understanding of the word “pity” – which, in its raw sense, is not about patronising someone or making them feel small, it’s the simple act of feeling sad for their situation.

So “sympathetic pity” is more about relating to how the other person feels and feeling sad with them.  “Concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” just furthers this notion of care and respect for the other person.

With this definition in mind and emotional interpretations aside, compassion is about understanding one another’s distress and relating to that as another human being. 

So what’s the problem with compassion?

It really starts to get tangled when we try to apply this compassion to actions that we don’t agree with and struggle to understand. 

For example if your best friend forgets your birthday, you are likely to feel upset and angry at them for forgetting, which might make you think about how little they care about you.  They might remind you how busy they have been or that they’ve been going through a hard time lately, but all you can see is their lack of respect for your friendship and this all feels like an excuse. 

That’s where compassion goes wrong – the lack of understanding and empathy for their situation blinds us.  We are so used to looking internally at how we feel and how others make us feel, that seeing it from an external perspective is like looking through frosted glass – you can kind of make out what’s going on but you can’t quite get the full picture.

So if we take this example and apply true compassion, how would it look?

If we try to relate to their situation somehow, either by imagining or by looking at how we have dealt with things in the past, we can find that empathy that is so important to showing compassion.  So maybe the last time you were super busy at work, you forgot that you’d arranged a catch up with a friend, showing that you too have your shortcomings.

Though your friend might have forgotten your birthday, you can understand how life can get in the way sometimes.  They clearly haven’t done this deliberately to hurt you and probably feel awful for forgetting.  It doesn’t mean they don’t care, it is simply that their mind is occupied elsewhere right now and that can’t be helped.  We all have moments like this.  Maybe they need some extra support at the moment and you could do something to help.

So compassion really isn’t about making excuses or being patronisingly pitied, it’s about understanding and caring. 

How can we use this in our daily lives?

Compassion takes practice.  The more you look at the world from different perspectives, the easier it becomes and the more satisfying it is.  Because who wants to live their lives being angry or upset by other people?

We can use compassion, not just when someone has done something wrong, but all the time.  Listening to other’s stories and hearing how it impacts them, understanding them on a deeper level can help us to feel more peace because we know we are not alone.

Compassion is one of my favourite tools in therapy because it can do so much.  We might think that being compassionate only benefits the other person, but it probably has more benefits for us.  Holding on to negative emotions about others is just hurting ourselves, so as soon as we can understand their reasoning and process, we can start to forgive and feel peace.

It’s also really useful to be self-compassionate – we punish ourselves for the smallest of mistakes and so understanding that we are only human can help us feel at peace with who we are.

So, though compassion sometimes feels like letting someone off the hook, it’s actually about putting ourselves in their shoes so that we can understand and empathise.

Drop a comment below about your thoughts on compassion, let’s see it from each other’s perspective and start practicing!

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