What Compassion Means

Compassion is a word that is in everyday use in the English language, but what does it mean? How does compassion differ from empathy? What can we learn from the definition of compassion and how can we use this knowledge to improve the well-being of others and ourselves? What is the significance of self-compassion and can it create a more compassionate person? Are you simply born a compassionate person or can feelings of compassion be taught and nurtured? What are compassion fatigue and burnout and how can they be avoided? This article discusses these important topics and explores how we can practice compassion to alleviate the suffering of others and ourselves.

The Definition of Compassion

So what’s compassion? Whats the definition of compassion? The word compassion can be defined in many ways.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines compassion as:
“A strong feeling of sympathy for people or animals who are suffering and a desire to help them”

The Cambridge Dictionary, similarly describes compassion as:
A strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them”

Dr. Thupten Jinpa, a former Buddhist monk, and one of the leading scholars on compassion, who heads the Compassion Institute defines compassion as:
“A sense of concern when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”

All of these definitions contain the same elements:

  1. A sense of concern or sympathy for a human being or animal and,
  2. A desire or motivation to help relieve that person’s suffering.

The word compassion has its roots from the Latin compati with a literal meaning of to suffer with.

Buddhism often refers to the concept of suffering, which can sound negative to us human beings not so acquainted with the Buddhist teachings. Suffering comes from the Sanskrit term “dukkha” and can be translated as “dis-satisfactoriness” i.e. the opposite of feelings of satisfaction. It may be easier for us to think of this concept of suffering as an experience of negative emotions, like hatred or anger towards a certain situation. After all, isn’t it the experience of our negative emotions in any situation that creates suffering for us?

To experience or feel compassion we need the emotional intelligence to feel a sense of concern for another person’s suffering and we need to develop an emotional response to want to help free that person from their suffering.

For a free guided meditation on compassion offered by the Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom, click here.

Compassion vs Empathy

Compassion is connected with but not the same as empathy, sympathy or altruism.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empathy refers to:

“The ability to understand another person’s feelings, experience, etc.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines empathy as:

The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.”

Compare this to the definition of sympathy (the feeling of being sorry for somebody). To sympathise with someone is to understand and feel sorry for someone, whereas to empathise with someone is to experience their suffering as your own.

Altruism -is defined as a willingness to do things that bring advantages to others, even if it results in disadvantage for yourself.

Emma Seppala distinguishes compassion from empathy and altruism as follows: “… The definition of compassion is often confused with that of empathy. Empathy, as defined by researchers, is the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring of another’s emotion, like tearing up at a friend’s sadness. Altruism is an action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion, for example in the case of making a donation for tax purposes. Although these terms are related to compassion, they are not identical. Compassion often does, of course, involve an empathic response and altruistic behavior. However, compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.”

Compassion means feeling empathy (experiencing the suffering of others) combined with acts which can be related to altruism (a willingness to free others from their negative emotions and suffering by a selfless act).


It would seem a contradiction to emphasise the importance of self-compassion when discussing how we can develop feelings of compassion for others. Many of us are conditioned from a young age not to be selfish, and to think of others, which often leads to feelings of guilt when it comes to selfcare. However, it can be argued that how can we become a compassionate person if we cannot be compassionate to ourselves?

Dr Kristen Neff, one of the world’s leading researchers in self-compassion says: “having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others”. It can therefore be said that to be compassionate and nurture compassionate feelings encompasses feeling compassion for every living being, including yourself.

It is now widely accepted that self-compassion and self-care play an important part in our well-being and mental health. Being kind to ourselves and acknowledging when we need to take a break or time out can help us recharge our batteries enabling us to be of more service to others.

Try this short 8 minute guided meditation to discover how kind you are being to yourself.

Compassion Fatigue & Burnout

We often make excuses that we don’t have time to be self-compassionate but find plenty of time for self-criticism. However, neglecting selfcare and self-kindness can seriously affect your mental health and lead to compassion fatigue and burnout.

Compassion fatigue is a term that describes the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others — often through experiences of stress or trauma. It’s most common among caregivers, professionals and charity workers. Symptoms include mood swings, detachment, extreme exhaustion, anxiety and depression. Similarly, Mental Health UK describe burnout to be a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. It can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time.

Compassion fatigue and burnout, can both be avoided and cured by paying more attention to selfcare and self-compassion.

Imagine, you have a very long journey ahead in your car. You’re busy running around organising everything for your trip – packing bags, booking hotels etc. You are so busy in fact you forget to check your tyres, water and oil. It may be that your car will be fine for many journeys, but eventually, if you don’t take the time to look after your car, one day the tyre will burst or the engine will overheat and cause long delays to your journey or worse still, the engine will seize completely. If you don’t look after your car it will break down and it won’t be able to take you anywhere. Similarly, if you don’t practice self-care and self-compassion, you may suffer from compassion fatigue and will not be able to look after or help anyone else.

Self-compassion is having the self-awareness to treat yourself as you would any loved one or friend by acknowledging when you need to practice some self-care. It is taking care of not only your physiological but also your psychological well-being. Research suggests that mindfulness-based interventions can be effective for improving self-compassion. Selfcare can be something as simple as taking a walk in nature.

World Views on Compassion

Compassion is considered a great virtue in philosophy and the greatest virtue in all religions. In Christianity, God is considered the father of compaction and Jesus the embodiment of compassion. Mercy and compassion are among the foremost attributes of Islam. In Judaism God is compassionate and in Buddhism, compassion is one of the four immeasurables (loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity).

The 14th Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion…

How to Become More Compassionate

Dachter Keltner said in the article The Compassionate Instinct:

“Recent neuroscience studies suggest that positive emotions are less heritable—that is, less determined by our DNA—than the negative emotions. Other studies indicate that the brain structures involved in positive emotions like compassion are more “plastic”—subject to changes brought about by environmental input. So we might think about compassion as a biologically based skill or virtue, but not one that we either have or don’t have. Instead, it’s a trait that we can develop in an appropriate context.

This would suggest that compassion as a positive emotion, is something that can be developed and nurtured. It’s of course extremely useful to cultivate compassion from an early age. You can discover more on this in this article How do you teach children compassion?

However, there is much you can do as an adult to practice compassion though methods such as a compassion training program, compassion meditation, loving-kindness meditation, mindfulness meditation and self-compassion.

Empathising with another person’s suffering, and replacing negative emotions with positive emotions by practising acts of compassion reduces stress and increases well-being, which not only alleviates the suffering of others but also reduces your risk for a wide variety of illnesses.

Courses for Teaching Compassion

The Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom also offers a range of courses to give you the training and skills you need to help you in teaching compassion:

We hope you found this exploration of compassion useful and invite you to explore FDCW’s website for more information.

Thank you.

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