What Does Compassion Mean?

Understanding compassion can help us to understand self compassion. What does compassion mean and how can we ensure we are begin compassionate?  When I am working with my clients on values and goals many of my clients identify compassion as a value they would like to be more in touch with. 

I also notice that when working on self compassion clients seem to  simultaneously become more compassionate. 

Joan Halifax has done incredible work on compassion, like Kristen Neff, she has defined it and studied it's components.  Most of the information on this page is taken from a course I took from Joan Halifax and her work. 

What Does Compassion Mean: Attention, Empathy, and Insight

Joan says that compassion can be divided into "scientific substrates" of attention empathy and insight"

We cannot be compassionate if we can't attend to the experience of others. Grounding and sustaining our attention is no easy task in this society though. Not only are we particularly challenged at this time in history by the fragmenting of our mind by technology, but certain situations provide specific challenges to compassion. Also, most of us want to turn away from pain and suffering of others, a time when we are required to be compassionate.  

What Does Compassion Mean: Attention

Daniel Goleman is a psychologist ,author, and science journalist. In his TED talk " Why aren't we more compassionate?" He references a study  detailed in a 1973 paper titled From Jerusalem to Jericho.” In their study, Darley and Batson examined the behavior of Princeton Theological Seminary students. One group of students were told they would give a talk on the parable of the good samaritan. One group were told they would give a talk on becoming a minister. On the way to give the talk both sets of students passed a man who needed help. A mixed set of students from both groups  were given the information that they should hurry up because they were going to be late for the talk. Darley and Batson were interested in which group helped. The group that stopped was the group that was not preoccupied or in a hurry regardless of what they had studied for the talk. 

Daniel Goleman also tells his own story of living in NY where homeless people are often ignored in the subway system. He himself would do this frequently until he spent time writing articles for The New York Times  on the homeless and became sensitive to their needs. 

One day, he noticed a man who was slumped down and not moving. Everyone was rushing about and  stepping over this man. Daniel Goleman  stopped to check with him and see if he could help. He was surprised that  SIX other people stopped after he did, and  they discovered the man had passed out for lack of food. After stopping and subsequently becoming aware of his need, all of the people in the general area managed to help him get enough food so he could revive himself. Only after they paid attention to him were they able to be empathetic and compassionate. 

These are two examples of how being present, and attentive, rather than busy preoccupied, or self absorbed are a precondition to compassion( and self compassion.) 

What Does Compassion  Mean:EMPATHY

Joan Halifax describes the second component of compassion as empathy, or the capacity to feel concern for others. Many of us are highly empathetic people and others seem to have a compromised ability to be empathetic. 

Empathy towards others can be compromised by:

  • Perceiving others as outside of our group. We know that empathy comes more readily to us when it is towards our "in group". A group that a person psychologically identifies as being a member of.  We instinctively categorize ourselves into a group that we feel a sense of belonging with. This causes us to distrust and fear others outside of our group.This bias impacts our ability to feel empathetic towards others. This is a fascinating area of research that continues to grow. In group psychology and our lack of empathy towards the out group explains many aspects of our present day conflict in the world. 


  • Our individual capacity to feel concern for others. Some people do not have the ability to feel empathy because they have been traumatized in childhood, although this is an area currently being researched some research suggests those who have experienced trauma are more able to be empathetic to others.

  •  Empathetic Distress. Empathetic distress is the current term for what used to be referred to as compassion fatigue. There is compelling research to suggest that compassion is not fatiguing and that we are wired to benefiting tremendously from the act of compassion. It has been found that people may become overwhelmed with feeling the distress of others because they need to learn special skills of grounding and mindfulness. Certain people are especially vulnerable to this and those include nurses, doctors, teachers, parents ( especially those of special needs or sick  children) and helpers of all kinds. However, any person in a situation where compassion is required in the face of suffering may need to learn skills to prevent empathetic distress especially a person who is sensitive. Empathetic distress prevents them from feeling healthy compassion and can lead to avoiding and withdrawing from healthy interactions. Joan Halifax is currently doing work in this area to help develop skills to teach to people to prevent empathetic distress.  

What is Compassion: Insight and The Desire to Alleviate Suffering

Insight is another component of compassion that entails "sensing into what might serve others". Insight requires empathy in all of its domains ( physical emotional and cognitive). A person who is demonstrating insight in the context of compassion is thinking about all of the systems that impact the person we are being compassion to. We are thinking about how to act with compassion based one what will assist the person we are interacting with. We use our empathy, intuition, and discernment about how to act compassionately in the other's best interest. 


Compassion also must include the intention to alleviate the suffering of the person you are acting compassionately towards.