To better understand the essential features that make up the experience of compassion, our research group reviewed different conceptualisations of compassion and consolidated them into a single definition.
What is compassion?
Compassion has been defined in many ways. Some definitions state that compassion involves recognising suffering, emotionally connecting with the resulting distress, and doing something to ease it.
Other definitions highlight distress tolerance, our ability to stay with difficult emotions when faced with suffering, and common humanity, understanding that suffering is a universal human experience.
Our definition includes 5 core elements of compassion:
1) Recognising suffering
2) Understanding the universality of suffering in human experience
3) Feeling for the person suffering and emotionally connecting with their distress
4) Tolerating any uncomfortable feelings that come up in response to suffering (e.g., fear, disgust, distress) so that we remain accepting of and open to the person suffering
5) Acting or being motivated to act to alleviate the suffering
This definition applies to both compassion towards ourselves (self-compassion) and other people (other-compassion).
It’s important to differentiate compassion from related states, like empathy and kindness. A key distinguishing feature of compassion is that it is a response to suffering. Suffering is a broad term that covers a range of experiences, like sadness, fear, frustration, loss, conflict and shame.