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What is Compassion and Why Do We Need It?

“Compassion gives us the courage and wisdom to descend into our suffering”.

Professor Paul Gilbert OBE

What is Compassion?

What comes to mind when you hear the word compassion? It’s likely that many of us will have instant thoughts and images of kindness, empathy and caring. Yet whilst these are indeed important attributes of compassion, don’t be fooled into thinking that compassion is soft and fluffy, or involves letting ourselves ‘off the hook’. It might surprise us to think of courage and strength as being equally valuable qualities of compassion. Put simply, we can think of compassion as having a sensitivity to suffering in ourselves and others and being committed to relieving and preventing it (Gilbert & Choden, 2013).

So what does this really mean? Firstly, it involves turning towards our pain and suffering. Noticing it, engaging with it, even sitting with it. This might sound counterintuitive, or even frightening. Afterall who in their right mind really wants to feel pain and distress when we can try to avoid it or push it away? This is where courage comes in. Because by turning towards the darker edges of human experience we can develop sympathy towards ourselves and our pain, and hold ourselves with kindness in this experience rather than judging or criticising ourselves. It is from this position that we can learn to build our awareness of what is causing and maintaining our distress. Avoidance is tempting, and often easier, but it keeps us stuck in unhelpful cycles. Afterall “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” (Henry Ford). But is it just enough to notice our suffering? No. Next we need to do something about it. So the second element of compassion is having the motivation and commitment to do what is necessary to end our suffering, and prevent it from happening again in the future. Compassion often involves doing the harder thing, choosing the more difficult road, but a road that will lead to meaningful change.

Why Do We Need Compassion?

Compassion starts with a reality check, one that can seem bleak initially, but which recognises the common humanity and struggle that we all share. Compassion invites us to recognise that we are born into bodies that we did not choose. Bodies that are susceptible to disease and decay, that are a product of a random genetic combination that we did not choose. That we have human brains that are hard wired with an inbuilt desire to survive, to notice and respond to danger, to belong, to be loved, to procreate, desires that we did not choose. Raised into families and early life experiences that we did not choose, but which shape the way that our brains develop, experience safety, relate to others and respond to danger. We all simply find ourselves here, with the realities of living in a human brain and body and the suffering that this brings. This position levels us and helps us to understand that so much of our pain and suffering is a product of things that we have not chosen. But it’s not all bad, in fact far from it. Because in addition to holding the physiology that allows us to experience painful and distressing body states and emotions, our brains and bodies are also furnished with the physiology to experience feelings of calm, safety and love. These wonderful brain states are the gifts that nature gives us, but which can feel hard to access through no fault of our own. Compassion helps us to understand the trappings of the human mind, learn to recognise when our evolved, complex brains are maintaining our distress, and engage in skill training that allows us to activate patterns of brain activity that grant access to these gifts of the human mind.

Can Compassion Really Help?

Research shows that practicing compassion is associated with a wealth of benefits for our mental health, including increased psychological wellbeing (Neff, Kirkpatrick & Rude, 2007), increased experience of positive emotions (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek & Finkel, 2008), and improved emotion regulation (Begley, 2007; Davidson et al., 2003). And benefits extend to our physical health, with compassion focused training shown to have positive effects on the functioning of the immune system (Rein, Atkinson & McCraty, 1995 and Pace, Negi & Adame, 2008), to be associated with a reduction in symptoms of illness (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek & Finkel, 2008) and increased heart rate variability (Rockliff et al., 2008) to name but a few.


Begley, S. (2007). Train your Mind, Change your Brain. New York: Ballantine Books.  

Davidson. R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S., et al. (2003). “Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindful meditation”, Psychosomatic Medicine, 65: 564-570. 

Fredrickson, B.L., Cohn, M.A., Coffey, K.A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S.M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062

Gilbert, P., & Choden. (2013). Mindful compassion. London: Robinson. 

Neff, K., Kirkpatrick, K., & Rude, S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(1), 139-154.

Pace, T. W., Negi, L. T., Adame, D. D., Cole, S. P., Sivilli, T. I., Brown, T. D., … & Raison, C. L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(1), 87-98.

Rein, G., Atkinson, M., & McCraty, R. (1995). The physiological and psychological effects of compassion and anger, Journal for the Advancement of Medicine, 8: 87-105.