Communication Self Improvement — 22 December 2014
‘Tis the Season for Compassion

During the Holiday season we are more emphatically encouraged to open our hearts and generously help those in need. Interestingly enough, those appeals can elicit both compassion and distress, only one of which motivates people to act altruistically. How can we deepen our compassion for others and act accordingly year round?

The dictionary definition of compassion is: “A sympathetic emotion created by the misfortunes of another, accompanied by the desire to help.” Yet, Neuropsychological studies by Daniel Batson and Associates found that two consistent emotions may arise in response to observing another in distress, “empathic concern and personal distress.” These findings support the assertion that “empathic concern consistently motivates people to act altruistically, while personal distress may produce an egoistic motivation to reduce personal distress.” They add, “In order for the subjective experience to be labeled empathy, the observer must recognize that the emotion she/he is experiencing is akin to the other’s emotional state.”

Those who shy away from the distress of others are not necessarily unkind. To the contrary, they may experience the pain of others so intensely and blend with the sufferer’s emotion so deeply that they need to withdraw from those in need for their own emotional self-protection.

The generosity of giving is not always matched by one’s ability to do so. There are those who are able to help others and do so graciously and there are those with meager means who still stretch to be generous even to their own detriment. How much or how little one helps others is not necessarily a true measure of empathy or compassion.

Compassion is a healing emotion in human relationships that enables caring individuals to imagine and empathize with a stranger’s plight in times of need and help in their own way. For example, in an emergency situation such as a car accident, there are those who are propelled to stop and physically assist or comfort the injured until professional help arrives, while others who may not feel equipped to physically aid the injured call for professional help. Both forms of conduct are manifestations of human compassion and caring.

One of the best lessons of compassion comes from having been in need. For example, being hungry as a student helped me empathize with and routinely support those in need of food. People who have not experienced a particular form of suffering can become compassionate by imagining how they might feel if they were in another’s shoes. This type of empathy is unlikely to cause you any acute personal distress but will activate your compassionate emotions and amplify your desire to help those in need.

We are also wise to avoid passing judgment about others. Believing that their distress is a self-propelled condition only distances us from our ability to be compassionate, kind and caring.

To access your compassion and caring:

  • Visualize the relief to others as you offer them your helping hand.
  • Accept that helping others benefits the giver and receiver alike.





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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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