Can compassion make you a better person?
You might have heard how compassion help your own well-being. But why does it help you and how does it relate to your well-being? Compassion is defined as, feeling the other person’s suffering and wanting to help relieve it. The opposite of compassion may be harshness, judgement or even callousness. Generally, being indifferent to another’s suffering or hard-hearted is the opposite.
Many researchers hypothesize that humans evolved to experience compassion because the resulting emotions and behaviors improved the survival of our ancestors. All people experience different levels of compassion depending on their own experiences and their values and beliefs about what is possible.
Researchers also found that people are likely to feel compassion for those in their own social group since they are better able to understand the point of view their group holds. There may be an evolutionary basis for this as they were more likely to survive if they aligned with the group’s goals. Conversely, it’s easier to view competitor groups as outsiders or different and therefore feel less compassionate for them.
How is empathy different?
Many people assume compassion and empathy are the same since both emotions are similar and help you to feel connected with others. But it can be helpful to differentiate how they are different in a couple of ways. Researchers define empathy as sharing another’s suffering, while compassion adds another layer of also feeling warmth, concern, and care for the other along with a desire to improve the other person’s well-being.
An empathetic response to another can lead the person to move away from the emotional situation to avoid discomfort. The biological drive to avoid pain is strong. However, a compassionate response which includes a desire to be helpful the person experiencing pain often means getting even closer to the emotional situation. Researchers also found that people who feel compassionate for others are more likely to help the sufferer than people who feel empathic distress.
Can you learn to be more compassionate?
Research in this area has grown over the last few decades and has shown that compassion benefits to both the giver and receiver. There are a variety of positive outcomes in experiencing compassion, including reduced depression and anxiety. So, just how do you increase your compassion?
One recent line of research has involved contemplative practices such as meditation as a way to increase compassionate feelings towards others. Loving-kindness meditation or Metta is one example of this. This meditation focuses on a short phrase to wish well upon others and to notice the pleasant feelings they experience in the process. Long-term practice of loving-kindness meditation and other meditations with a similar focus functionally change in the brain. One study found that experienced meditators who include compassion in their practice have a stronger neural response in an area of the brain associated with compassion than novice meditators.
Fortunately, you don’t have to practice loving-kindness meditation for years receive its benefits. Other researchers found that a short practice benefits both the meditator as well as the person being mediated for. There are numerous guided loving-kindness meditations available that you can try.
Can you be too compassionate?
What is compassion fatigue and how can you prevent it?
The benefits of feeling and expressing compassion are clear. However, the research also shows that there are disadvantages as well and that’s when compassion fatigue can happen. Compassion fatigue is defined as, “a more user-friendly term for secondary traumatic stress disorder, which is nearly identical to PTSD, except that it applies to those emotionally affected by the trauma of another.”
Compassion fatigue is an emotional investment many people experience with others they care about. Even if you’re not in the helping professions, you can still experience compassion fatigue related to someone you’re close to.
Compassion fatigue is similar to burnout, but the difference is that compassion fatigue includes “absorbing” the other’s emotional experience. Burnout focuses on the stressful situations in your own life.
Compassion brings us closer to one another and improves both the giver and receivers’ lives. While the feeling can lead to negative outcomes such as compassion fatigue, it has many benefits. Improving self-care practices that support healthy boundaries, emotional mastery and habits that increase well-being can prevent compassion fatigue.