compassion, psychotherapy

Compassion and Self-Compassion

When thinking about compassion I would guess our first thought is that it is something we feel for others. A deep and profound connection to another’s suffering. A feeling far beyond sympathy and empathy. The Dalai Lama describes compassion as ‘the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering, just like myself’ and Frank M. Staemmler adds to this by saying when we do this we do it ‘without defence and negative judgement’.

Compassion is the backbone of the Dalai Lama’s teachings and belief and it is not hard to understand why – compassion connects people, reminding us that we are all human beings together. Compassion also connects us to the earth and her creatures. Compassion is also good for us to feel. Many studies have shown when we open ourselves to others and when we reach out to help them we improve our own mental and physical health.

Allowing ourselves to be open to the suffering of another can be hard, very hard. I think it is hardest when the other is someone who has hurt us or when we are divided by belief or ideals. Our current political climate in the west has shown this quite dramatically in recent months. When we feel we are fighting for the survival of our way of being it is difficult to remember that those we are fighting are doing the same. They are scared like us, they are suffering like us, they are human beings like us.

But hard as this can be, I wonder if a lot of us struggle most with the last part of the Dalai Lama’s definition – ‘like myself’. How easy do we find it to be open to our own suffering, to be moved by it, without defence and negative judgement? How easy do we find it to be caring and understanding towards ourselves? How easy is it to gently hold all of our inadequacies, all of our failures, all of our fear without criticising or demanding that we be different.

In therapy sometimes self-compassion is so hard to access that a therapist may invite you to think of someone you have known in your life, or have read about, who has acted in this compassionate way. They will ask you to really imagine this person, how they looked and spoke. Then they will ask you how this person would view your suffering. Because sometimes we are so cruel to ourselves or we feel so unworthy that we need an outside view to remember we are just human beings doing our best, not perfect, just good enough.

And the truth is we are all interconnected and interdependent. We need to feel compassion from others to feel it for ourselves and, somewhat paradoxically, we need to feel compassion for ourselves to feel it for others. This is hard but it can be a virtuous circle. A circle of relating that can actively acknowledge our problems, collective and individual, without embellishment. A circle of relating that allows us to commit to our own and others well being.

In  nourishing you, I am nourishing myself because our experience of each other is not separate … we are fundamentally and powerfully connected

(Wang, 2005)


HH Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler (1998), The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living.

Staemmler, Frank-M (2012), British Gestalt Journal 2012, Vol. 21, No. 2, 19 – 28.

Wang, S. (2005) quoted in above article.