What Is Compassion and How Can It Improve My Life?

Compassion involves more than putting yourself in another's place.

Posted Apr 29, 2008

The definition of compassion is the ability to understand the emotional state of another person or oneself. Often confused with empathy, compassion has the added element of having a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another. Empathy, as most people know, is the ability to put oneself in the other person's place. Although compassion and empathy are two separate things, having compassion can lead to feeling empathy.

Although the above is the accepted definition of compassion, I believe that having compassion for someone involves more than putting yourself in their place and genuinely wanting to understand or even help them. It involves beginning to have a totally different perspective when it comes to how you perceive others.

For example, instead of assuming that the reason someone has done something that hurts you is because they are selfish or inconsiderate, assume instead that they had a good reason for doing it. This idea, based on Marshall Rosenberg's philosophy, can be difficult to buy into at first. But when you think about it, don't you usually have a good reason when you do something, even if what you did may seem inconsiderate to someone else?

Let's say you are very worried about your child's health. You took her to the doctor and he decided to take tests in order to rule out a serious disease. Later that day you were walking down the street, preoccupied with your daughter. An acquaintance passed you and said hello. You said hello in return but because you were so deep in thought, you didn't stop to chat. Later on, you find out that the acquaintance felt insulted because you "snubbed" her. Even though it was not your intention to snub this person, and you had a very good reason for your behavior, the acquaintance assumed the worst.

Unfortunately, this is what most of us do. We assume the worst. Learning to have more compassion involves making the radical shift to assume the best in others. If the acquaintance had assumed the best, she would have concluded that it wasn't personal—that you must have been preoccupied—and she would have been right!