(I need to give credit to an interesting talk I followed, by Dr. Will Devlin)
The etymology of the word ‘compassion’ gives us a good place to start. The word comes from the Latin: com + pati, which means: suffering with, sharing the suffering. It indicates two important points:
1) Being sensitive to suffering,
2) and the ability to do something about it.
This means that being compassionate indicates the ability to do both.
Compassion is not an emotion; compassion is a motivation. This is because emotions can change, but a motive stays the same. Compassion is not synonymous with softness, pity or weakness; compassion is the ability to tolerate distress and to do something to prevent it.
Compassion can be expressed in different ways:
- The ability to offer compassion to others
- The ability to receive compassion from others
- The ability to offer and receive compassion for ourselves (self-compassion)
All of these abilities are skills, so we can work on them and improve.
What feels easier? What comes more natural?
It’s usually easier to offer compassion to others and it’s more difficult to offer and receive compassion for ourselves.
Compassion is an intention, something we can apply to present, past and future experiences.
Why do we need compassion? We need compassion because life is hard and we always meet suffering.
Compared to animals, we have a greater self-awareness. This also gives us the ability to see problems everywhere and we tend to over-focus on problems, clearly because we want to solve them. The self-awareness comes with a price: self-criticism, worse case scenario, rumination, and so on. These unhelpful thinking patterns are triggered by our perception of threat. This is not necessarily a physical threat, it can be a potential threat or a psychological threat. We can imagine danger and out thinking goes straight to self-protection, fight-or-flight, and defence mode. Activating or deactivating this system can be in our control.
We do have a choice over it, even if often it feels difficult. The way to develop more compassion is to work on individual instances and to think about it as a process. Every time we catch ourselves in an unhelpful thinking pattern (overthinking, jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing...) we have a chance to make a more empowering choice. We can feed and cultivate another version of ourselves, the compassionate self.