Blogs Reports

What is Compassion [Part one – Colder]


Reported by Mat

Published on Monday, April 8th, 2024

Support and Relationships
Blogs Reports

What is Compassion [Part one – Colder]


Written by Mat

Published on Monday, April 8th, 2024

Support and Relationships

Language is a dynamic and fluid aspect of human communication, and its evolution is an ongoing process that dictionaries may struggle to keep pace with. For instance, I know a lot of happy lesbians and homosexuals but I’m pretty sure that that’s not why they’re known as gay. 

Dictionaries offer the best guess of closeted academics to offer a kind of average meaning for words, regardless of context. But the changing definitions they offer can give us interesting insights into the development of the way we think as individuals and as a society. Despite the different definitions out there for the word ‘compassion’, they all focus on the process of connecting with someone’s suffering and being motivated to help them as a result. 

Peer Power’s definition states: 

“The sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others; as in the victims should be treated with compassion.” 

For me at least, the words pity, sympathy and victim seem severely dated. 

In my version of the word the connection fuelling any act of true compassion has to be empathetic in nature rather than sympathetic, with people offered respect rather than pity. 

According to Elizabeth Perry writing in What is the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy on Betterup.com: 

“There’s one big difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy involves feeling what someone else feels, while sympathy doesn’t. Sympathy instead involves understanding someone else’s emotions but from your own perspective.” 

It didn’t surprise me then, to find out that modern websites discussing human behaviour seem to focus more on empathy and respect rather than sympathy and pity when it comes to forming the sort of connection that fuels true compassion. This more up to date thinking about compassion tends to talk about empathy as an essential component of it. 

The Psychiatric Medical Care Communications Team is far more brutal: 

“Empathy is our ability to understand how someone feels while sympathy is our relief in not having the same problems.” 

OUCH. The insinuation here is clear – sympathy is little more than a way of deflecting other people’s pain to deal with the guilt we feel for letting them down, both on a personal level and as part of the society that has let them down. 

But if empathy is such an important element in truly connecting to people so we can effectively help, how does it differ from compassion? 

According to the Global Compassion Coalition: 

“While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.” 

And this is so important when it comes to shaping homeless services. Because you can’t start to know how to help people unless you know what they need, and just hearing people’s words is not enough. 

You must empathise with the person to understand the problem. If you truly empathise, then compassion helping people will naturally flow from that. To put it simply, empathy produces understanding and compassion, which in turn produces the type of help people want. Sympathy and pity on the other hand lead you to give people the type of help you think they want rather than the type of help they actually need. 

There are a shedload of definitions out there for compassion but I like the idea of looking at Wikipedia because it’s a dictionary with the potential to be edited by one and all. It may not always hit the nail squarely on the head but in this case it certainly does. The people’s encyclopaedia (as of April 2024) has compassion down as: 

“The social feeling that motivates people to go out of their way to relieve the physical, mental, or emotional pains of others and themselves. Compassion is sensitivity to the emotional aspects of the suffering of others and the desire to do something about it.” 

While I jive with this definition there is still an element of it that doesn’t reflect the way we offer understanding and compassion in the modern world. Unlike empathy, which offers connection on both a positive and negative level, compassion is directly linked to suffering. 

Take Greater Good Mag’s definition: 

“Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” 

If the primary difference between the words empathy and compassion is that compassion involves action then there is no word to describe the desire to help someone by relating to their positive emotions. It’s like we are saying that people who need our help are 100 per cent broken with nothing positive to relate to, which sounds like the religious concept of original sin, rooted in the idea of a suffering soul that needs the alleviation offered only by the balm of the Lord’s forgiveness. We are very quickly back to that ‘pity the wretched’ model of giving, with the compassionate giver offering the answer. 

There is a modern school of thought that encourages people working in the homelessness sector not to connect on an empathetic level because of the dangers of compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. If we get too close to people, we get overwhelmed, the thinking goes. But, although these are real problems, it’s my observation that more often than not, ‘apathy’ replaces empathy when people are frustrated by a lack of support from the system that results in not seeing their efforts translated in to change. 

Perhaps, if we frame compassion in a different way we will have more success in helping people. If we apply compassion by connecting with positive emotions as well as talking about difficult issues, then could learn about people’s strengths and encourage them to utilise those strengths to help themselves with their issues. Instead of helping someone with a single issue now to temporarily alleviate their suffering, we could empower them to help themselves with all manner of issues they have suffered through in the past and still have to deal with in the present. It is my view that, delivered correctly, compassion empowers both the giver and the receiver as we learn about and therefore from each other. And if we are helping others in a meaningful way will always be learning about ourselves because we are communicating not preaching. 

Written by Mat


Mat came to Groundswell in 2018 after several years as a volunteer for the Pavement Magazine where he is now Deputy Editor. Part of his role at the Pavement was to help deliver ‘From the Ground Up’, a partnership between the Pavement and Groundswell that taught core journalism skills to people with lived experience of homelessness. As a Project Officer he continues to develop his one on one interview skills and runs focus groups all over the country. Mat’s involved in all parts of the research process, helping to produce: research frameworks; the foundation questions for semi-structured qualitative interviews and focus groups,; the content of quantitative surveys and data analysis. He also has experience of speaking at conferences, working on grant applications, podcast production and as a consultant for film production.

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