The Science Behind Compassion
Compassion is an intrinsic trait that is fundamental to human evolution. Broadly defined, compassion refers to the sensitivity to the experience of suffering, paired with an innate desire to alleviate that suffering (Geotz et al., 2010). Essentially, it entails opening one’s awareness to the pain of others and allowing feelings of kindness, or compassion, to emerge in order to aid the suffering of the other (Wispe, 1991). Self-compassion is the same process but directed inward, where the focus is centered on the self instead of the other. Accordingly, as compassion can be felt for the suffering of others, it can equally extend to our own perceived sufferings. It requires one to be transparent and honest about their suffering whilst generating an intrinsic desire to alleviate it through kindness and without judgement (Neff & Germer, 2017). However, there is one significant caveat to self-compassion. Compassion itself could be considered a quasi-evolutionary trait shared and felt by all humans. It is automatic and plays a vital role in processes such as child-rearing, mate selection and cooperation (e.g., Goetz et al. 2010; Sorenson et al., 2017), among others. On the other hand, self-compassion is not apparent in most people as it is a learned process that requires consistent cultivation for one to reap the evidenced benefits. Research suggests that self-compassion is significantly associated with benefits such as increased psychological resilience (Lefebvre et al., 2020) and emotional stability and strongly impacts overall wellbeing (Zessin et al., 2015). To be self-compassionate, one needs to treat themselves with kindness, recognize their shared humanity and possess a mindful outlook in the face of negative events and aspects of oneself (Neff & Germer, 2017). Multiple lines of evidence show that these processes are best integrated within one’s life through consistent practice and instruction.
The benefits of Compassion
Similar to compassion, self-compassion is associated with a myriad of different psychological and neurobiological benefits. As mentioned above, self-compassion involves treating one’s inner experiences and perceptions with kindness instead of judgement (Goetz et al., 2010). The inability to express kindness and sympathy for oneself is linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety that result in dysfunctional behaviours (Krieger et al., 2016). Various manifestations of a lack of self-perceived kindness are self-sabotage, negative attentional bias, and an inability to set boundaries (Kaiser, 2017). Hence, it is crucial to develop kindness for the self in order to mitigate symptoms of depression or anxiety, and rise beyond the negative behavioral patterns that stem from the lack of its presence.
Recognizing one’s shared humanity is another component of self-compassion essential for generating psychological wellbeing. Research shows that the inability to recognize the shared humanity of others is associated with increased psychological distress (Mckay & Walker, 2021). Simply put, the human brain is primed to be ego-centric, meaning that it ascribes more importance to its own experiences than those of the other. Due to this, many people cannot connect on an emotional level during times of psychological distress, which creates feelings of isolation, confusion and irrational anger (Beam & Kim, 2020). Developing a conception of shared humanity ultimately reverses this negative process and includes the other as a reference to our misgivings. Through this process, social awareness increases, negative symptoms are easily reframed and understood through the lens of the other, and factors that negatively impact psychological wellbeing are robustly mitigated (Mckay & Walker, 2021).
Mindfulness is the ability to remain experientially open to the events in the present moments, observing any thoughts, emotions, and sensations enter awareness without judgement, repression, or avoidance (Wilson & Weiss, 2020). This cognitive tool is a fundamental component of self-compassion, and its cultivation is associated with a wide range of impacts on psychological wellbeing and neurological health facets (Murfield et al., 2021). Mindfulness involves accepting thoughts and emotions that may be intensely distressing for the individual. Thus, when inner events can be accepted mindfully, research indicates that psychological resilience to aversive stimuli increases significantly, and neuroplasticity in the brain is promoted to consolidate this behavior (Huang et al., 2021; Dockthaisong, 2018). Conversely, the lack of mindfulness towards thoughts and emotions can lead to dysfunctional coping behaviours such as social withdrawal, risk-seeking behaviours and even substance misuse (Schuman-Olivier, 2020).
Cultivating Compassion in a Tangible Way
Research has shown that there is a learned component to compassion and self-compassion, meaning that these skills can be taught through instruction or guidance (Mckay & Walker, 2021). Many studies investigating the underlying mechanisms of compassionate behaviors have found multiple evidence-based methods that successfully foster compassion and self-compassion within the individual. These include:
Cognitive Reframing is an extensively researched method of shifting one’s perception of external or internal stimuli to reduce stress and promote feelings of peace and control (Luoma & Martela, 2021). By reframing self-critical and judgmental thoughts into more realistic and helpful variations, research has shown that individuals will move towards higher states of acceptance and subsequent compassion (Benson, 2010).
Cognitive Distancing is a process that has many overlapping features with mindfulness as it involves the active separation of our judgements from external or interval events (Adut, 2019). Through cognitive distancing, the individual can learn how to distance themselves from their inner critic and learn how to observe rather than judge themselves. Research indicates that active observation, as opposed to judgement, is vital for compassionate behaviors.
Awareness Training (Meditation) is a method that aims to remove the obstacle of cognitive inflexibility (Schone et al., 2018). Frequently, compassion is blocked in the mind as the individual’s awareness does not extend to the different processes of their mind. As a result, self-criticism is identified with and not made aware that it is a separate entity from the self that is incongruent with compassionate thinking.
These methods are crucial for removing the obstacles that obstruct processes like self-kindness, shared humanity and mindfulness. Using tangible methods such as cognitive reframing, distancing and awareness training, one can begin to build a robust foundation that can uphold compassion effectively and indefinitely.
The Bottom Line
As science begins to deconstruct the various processes that foster compassion and self-compassion, we observe a more linear path towards these processes supported by extensive research (Luoma & Martela, 2021; Adut, 2019). Moreover, studies have begun to outline the various outcomes that stem from either a lack of compassion or its presence. To reiterate, multiple lines of evidence demonstrate that cultivating compassionate thinking in your life contributes to increased psychological wellbeing and resilience, heightened awareness concerning internal stimuli, reduced stress and more significant social connections (Mckay & Walker, 2021). If you are looking to lead a psychologically, emotionally and ultimately physically fulfilling life, compassion has been evidenced to contribute to all of these domains of wellbeing positively.
Cultivate more compassion in your life by enrolling in our mini course today!:
Developing self-appreciation by discovering qualities that you can appreciate about yourself
Develop a sense of common humanity, which is a crucial component of self-compassion.
Reframe self-critical and judgmental thoughts into more realistic, helpful thoughts to move towards self-acceptance.
Raise your awareness of your inner critic and the consequences of this voice in terms of emotions and motivation.
Create distance from their self-critic, learning to observe rather than judging.
Identify your own unique internal Judger voice and work with it, instead of engaging in the battle.
Increase the your awareness of inner criticism and promote a more self-compassionate stance towards self.
Increase daily awareness of self-critical thoughts and promote thoughts and behavior that reflect a more compassionate relationship with the self.
Over 19 exercises and 50+ scientific references
Adut, S. L. (2019). Looking Outside of Self and Experience: Effects of Cognitive Distancing on Intrusive Thought Responses (Doctoral dissertation, Miami University).
Benson, P. R. (2010). Coping, distress, and well-being in mothers of children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4(2), 217-228.
Dockthaisong, B. (2018). Meditation and Mindfulness as Methods to Sharpen and Enhance the Brain. PSAKU International Journal of Interdisciplinary Research, 7(2).
Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: an evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological bulletin, 136(3), 351.
Kaiser, S. (2017). The Self-love Experiment: Fifteen Principles for Becoming More Kind, Compassionate, and Accepting of Yourself. Penguin.
Krieger, T., Berger, T., & grosse Holtforth, M. (2016). The relationship of self-compassion and depression: Cross-lagged panel analyses in depressed patients after outpatient therapy. Journal of affective disorders, 202, 39-45.
Luoma, J., & Martela, F. (2021). A dual-processing view of three cognitive strategies in strategic decision making: Intuition, analytic reasoning, and reframing. Long Range Planning, 54(3), 102065.
Lefebvre, J. I., Montani, F., & Courcy, F. (2020). Self-compassion and resilience at work: A practice-oriented review. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 22(4), 437-452.
Murfield, J., Moyle, W., & O'Donovan, A. (2021). Mindfulness-and compassion-based interventions for family carers of older adults: A scoping review. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 116, 103495.
Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2017). Self-compassion and psychological well-being.
Schöne, B., Gruber, T., Graetz, S., Bernhof, M., & Malinowski, P. (2018). Mindful breath awareness meditation facilitates efficiency gains in brain networks: A steady-state visually evoked potentials study. Scientific reports, 8(1), 1-10.
Schuman-Olivier, Z., Trombka, M., Lovas, D. A., Brewer, J. A., Vago, D. R., Gawande, R., ... & Fulwiler, C. (2020). Mindfulness and behavior change. Harvard review of psychiatry.
Sorenson, C., Bolick, B., Wright, K., & Hamilton, R. (2017). An evolutionary concept analysis of compassion fatigue. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 49(5), 557-563.
Wispé, L. (1991). The psychology of sympathy. Springer Science & Business Media.
Wilson, J. M., Weiss, A., & Shook, N. J. (2020). Mindfulness, self-compassion, and savoring: Factors that explain the relation between perceived social support and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 152, 109568.