Elderly man and woman sitting togetherCompassion is feeling sympathy for another’s pain or distress combined with the desire to soothe that person’s suffering. Born of empathy, feelings of compassion—whether felt for oneself or for others—are likely to improve the quality and depth of relationships and overall life experience. Whether someone acts on his or her compassionate feelings is a choice. Some therapists, researchers, and spiritual traditions advocate that a deeply compassionate life brings true happiness and fulfillment.

Cultivating Compassion

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” –Dalai Lama

The pursuit of happiness is a shared human endeavor and people achieve varying degrees of happiness in a variety of ways. Some find it in instant gratification and material pleasures; others find it in spiritual practice and contemplation. Still others find it in intimate relationships or family bonding, in the creative arts, in traveling and exploring, and/or in career choices. Many spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhist philosophy, insist that “true and lasting happiness” is possible only through the cultivation of compassion—for self and for others (Babauta, 2007).

So, how does one cultivate compassion?

Some people may feel compassion more readily than others; perhaps they are highly sensitive or empathic types by nature or have practiced to develop this skill. Those who do not feel innately inclined to experience compassion for self or others may have to work a little harder to develop it. This requires stepping outside one’s individual psyche and into shared psychic and emotional space, which may prove challenging for some.

A daily ritual of acknowledging and accepting personal thoughts and feelings is a good place to start. Ideally, this will lead to a deeper sense of acceptance and self-compassion, which will in turn inspire increased empathic awareness. In A Guide to Cultivating Compassion in Your Life, With 7 Practices, Leo Babauta (2007) encourages a practice of recognizing that each of us has a “life story” with its ups, downs, and imperfections, and that everyone experiences pain and suffering. Taking into consideration that the desire to remain free from pain and suffering is largely a shared experience may also aide in developing feelings of compassion for others.

The Role of Compassion in Therapy

The emergence of therapies that emphasize the importance of compassion is on the rise. People who practice compassion are known to experience less stress and more relaxation (Babauta, 2007). Understandably, this is useful in therapy, as anxiety, stress, and depression are some of the most common reasons people seek the help of a therapist.

Depending on a person’s reasons for seeking therapy, his or her therapist may choose to focus on developing self-compassion. Buddhist philosophy says that self-compassion is essential for truly loving and caring for oneself, and without genuine love for self, it is near impossible to love, care, and feel deeply for another—much less to act on his or her behalf. Regardless, many people find it easier to experience compassion for another than for oneself, especially if the “other” is a loved one such as a child, intimate partner, close friend, or pet (Germer and Siegel, 2012). However, the fact remains that without self-love and -acceptance, a person may go through the motions of caring for another while neglecting his or her own needs, and this will eventually lead to burnout.

As detailed in Christopher K. Germer and Ronald D. Siegel’s Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice (2012), “cultivating a more compassionate relationship toward oneself and others” is considered an integral component of the mindfulness movement in therapy. The authors also note that compassion is at the core of the world’s major religious teachings; the general message of “do unto others as you would have done to yourself” has been expressed in various wordings by Confucius, Muhammad, Jesus, Krishna, and the Buddha.

It is also important for a therapist to feel compassion for his or her clients. Without a sense of where a person is at emotionally, it may be difficult to assess how to truly help him or her to heal and recover. Compassion is an essential element in the therapeutic concepts of empathy, acceptance, and unconditional positive regard.


  1. Babauta, L. (2007, June 4). A guide to cultivating compassion in your life, with 7 practices. Retrieved from
  2. Compassion-focused therapy. Retrieved from
  3. Germer, C. K., and Siegel, R. D. (2012). Wisdom and compassion in psychotherapy: Deepening mindfulness in clinical practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Last Updated: 08-4-2015

  • Leave a Comment
  • Marion

    July 30th, 2022 at 12:51 PM

    I am living with an autistic man , he seems Ok some of the time but now I am furious as he sent notes to another woman actually my attractive cleaner saying she looks beautiful and he isnt married or tied and would she arrange to meet him in another place ! He is now ill and I now look after him , with clenched
    teeth ! We are both 80 and were close , I thought ! He cant get an erection because he has varicose problems and enlarged prostate . I have helped him for ages to get doctors appointments and hospital treatment . I am trying to ignore this farcical situation but still feel angry and let down . He is also a hoarder and gradually I managed to get rid of some of his rubbish . He is also very mean and wont pay his way . He doesnt pay rent or council tax , only for food shopping and some petrol . I had to buy him shoes and shirts as otherwise he will go around like a tramp! I am a widow but lonely . The bottom line is he adores animals and birds like me but …………..

  • Sue

    February 9th, 2023 at 9:04 PM

    Hello, Please don’t feel angry or bad. People with autism have social issues. He may find her pretty, but people with autism are socially awkward. So although he loves you with all of his heart, he doesn’t quite understand that saying something like that would hurt another persons feelings. He loves and appreciates you I am sure of it. But socially he sounds just awkward, which is what autism is.

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