What is… Compassion

Mental Health @ Home Insights Into Psychiatry: Compassion

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.  This week’s term: compassion

I was inspired to write about compassion because recently one of my managers expressed her view that “too much compassion is paternalistic”.  I already have no respect for her or her opinions, but I thought I’d take a closer look at why that statement is so completely messed up.

Google defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”  I’m not satisfied with that definition, so on to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”  Ok, getting warmer.

Next I turned to the entry on Wikipedia, and was less than impressed.  It contains the line “Expression of compassion is prone to be hierarchical, paternalistic and controlling in responses.”  The reference cited is Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind, and while I haven’t read that book yet, I have strong doubts about whether it would be likely to include a line like that.  With a Google search I found the lines “Because compassion is concerned only with the suffering of others and can operate cognitively without sharing the other’s experience, we think it is prone to hierarchical responses, that is, providing care or support in a patronizing way placing the giver in a controlling position over the receiver…  There is a long history of more dominant cultures having compassion for those who are suffering and expressing that compassion in paternalistic and controlling ways” in Expressing Empathy (lead author Elizabeth Segal).

None of this sits well with my idea of compassion, which is strongly influenced by Buddhist ideas.  From a Buddhist perspective, there are three elements of compassion: perceiving another’s suffering or need, emotionally connecting with the suffering need (i.e. empathy), and wishing to see that suffering relieved.  Dr. Thupten Jinpa writes that: “Compassion acknowledges the fundamental truth of our human condition that not all pain can be fixed.”  It arises from a sense of shared humanity and shared concern. There is a Buddhist meditation that involves extending the circle of concern, moving from wishing for the self to be free from suffering outwards to eventually include all beings.  The Tibetan Buddhist practice of “tonglen” involves breathing in another’s suffering (while visualizing dark clouds or smoke), then releasing it and breathing out happiness and good fortune (visualizing white clouds and light).

Compassion turns up in many other religious/spiritual traditions.  In Christianity, Corinthians describes God as the Father of Compassion.  In Judaism, that Babylonian Talmud states “as God is gracious and compassionate, so you are to be gracious and compassionate.”  In the Quran, all but one chapter begin with “In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful.”  In Hinduism, there are the notions of absolute and relative compassion, with absolute being something deserved by all humans, and relative compassion pertaining to the difference between those who have been wronged and those who have done wrong.

And what is my conclusion?  I think that people who are already inclined to have paternalistic attitudes may offer compassion as an excuse to step in and solve problems the way they think they should be solved.  While this may be presented to others as being compassionate, the paternalistic person is actually serving their own needs, and the genuine compassionate sentiment is not there.  True compassion is not paternalistic, it’s held up as an ideal by multiple major spiritual traditions, and I’ll take that over paternalism any day.

What are your thoughts on the subject?



You can find the rest of my What Is series here.


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20 thoughts on “What is… Compassion

  1. Luftmentsch says:

    Hmm, I think some people like to see paternalism and ‘privilege’ everywhere. Saying “compassion is paternalistic” sounds like trying to say “I don’t care about you” in a way that doesn’t make the speaker sound like a jerk.

  2. Meg says:

    Great blog post!! I appreciate the time and effort you put in to trying to find a workable definition, and I had no idea it would be so hard to do–you’d think basic references would have better definitions!! That’s sort of disturbing.

    For me, I’ve found a continuum of compassion within me that’s related to how much the other person is causing (or has caused) their problems. For example, I have a lot of compassion for my mom, because she didn’t choose to fall down the stairs. But my compassion ends due to her bad attitudes, her scheming, her refusal to be remotely cooperative (i.e., to quit screaming and driving everyone crazy who’s trying to help), etc.

    I have huge compassion for someone in a freak accident. I have almost no compassion for someone who treats others terribly for fun and then plays the victim. It’s a complex issue for me. It’s like the difference between someone who has caused their own problems versus someone worthwhile who truly needs a blessing or miracle. For the latter group, I try to help in whatever way I can (prayer, positive energy, brainstorming, etc.). For the former group, I’m fed up.

      • Meg says:

        And one thing I hope I implied is when such people are making everyone else miserable too. It’s not so bad if people can keep their unhappiness to themselves instead of creating deliberate drama and turmoil and manipulation.

  3. Invisibly Me says:

    Ooo this is an interesting one! I’m not keen on what you’ve picked out from the Wiki article either, doesn’t fit with my thoughts on it. I include empathy, patience and a non-judgemental attitude with my view of compassion. The tonglen part was new to me so thanks for sharing – learn something new every day! 🙂
    Caz x

  4. Ana Daksina says:

    I had no idea of the amount of disinformation there is out there about this word! What they’re describing is pity, not compassion. You have the right of it. 😎

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