Your sister sheds tears as she tells you about her beloved dog passing away and your eyes well up.
A coworker tells you about how poorly she’s been treated by your boss and you begin to feel upset.
When your friend expresses concern about a serious health diagnosis, you feel worried.
Those are all moments of compassion. Unlike sympathy, where you recognize a situation and may reach out to the person suffering without feeling with him or her, compassion involves actually sharing an emotion with someone else as a result of their experience.
It wasn’t your pet that passed away. It wasn’t you who was treated badly. It wasn’t your news from the doctor. But just hearing a person’s story and seeing them in distress made you feel the same way. “Witnessing the story is true compassion,” says Ann Pardo, M.A., L.P.C., B.C.C., director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “You’re seeing how the experience affected that person—and it affects you too.” Knowing when to gently touch them on the shoulder or when to leave them alone is what we call empathy, she adds. It takes compassion a step further with an action.
Why We Feel Compassion
While the fact that you care about a person can certainly contribute to your reaction, there’s a more scientific reason you exhibit compassion—one that explains why you can share emotions with people you don’t even know.
Your brain is able to synchronize with another person’s through mirror neurons—nerve cells that copy (or “mirror”) the behavior you’re witnessing. These neurons explain why we yawn when we see others do so, or why we feel like we’re being chased when we’re watching someone being pursued in a movie. Your brain thinks you’re having the experience. “You wear that story or situation in your mind as if it’s your own,” Pardo explains.
Does Everyone Experience Compassion?
Expressing this emotion can be harder for some people than others. Finding it difficult, however, doesn’t mean you’re completely void of compassion. Your struggle to connect on this emotional level could be due to a couple of reasons:
- Past experiences—What if you recognize that your sister’s dog dying is a sad situation for her, but you don’t feel affected by it like she does. “Sometimes defenses that stem from our past get in the way of us expressing that shared emotion,” says Pardo. For example, if the death of your childhood pet was something you weren’t able to come to terms with, you may not be willing to fully engage in your sister’s story.
- Lack of focus—If your focus is elsewhere, including your own situation, you won’t be able to be a good listener and give your full attention to someone else. And if you’re not really there in the moment with that person, listening and witnessing, it’s difficult for you to connect to the story and its teller’s hurt.
Sharing an emotion is something that can’t be forced, but you can open yourself up to the experience. If you’re worried that others—especially people you love most—might think that not seeing expressions of compassion from you is a sign that you don’t care about them, being more aware of the words you use when you know someone is suffering can help. Consider these suggestions:
- Think about who you’re talking to. Sitting down and talking with a toddler about something they are upset about is very different than having a same-topic conversation with an adult. Most of the time, we instinctively know how to give people the response they need at a level they can handle, says Pardo. But sometimes we forget to consider those sensitivities, making us seem less compassionate. Tuning in to the individual can help you better connect with what that person is feeling.
- Practice through meditation. Spiritual rituals are known to help support living with more compassion. Buddhists, for example, meditate on the idea of compassion, often practicing a loving-kindness meditation that involves calming the mind and opening the heart, Pardo says. Try it yourself: Visualize someone you care about and wish them well, directing positive thoughts toward them.