Compassion goes far beyond the feeling of pity: it allows us to mature emotionally.
Sometimes it is understood that compassion is a quality that makes us vulnerable, condescending with what we are, with what happens to us. Something similar to “drain the bundle”. For this reason, thinking about a compassionate person may bring to mind images of people you find fragile or weak.
In the dictionary we can find the definition of compassion as a feeling of sadness produced by seeing someone suffer and that prompts us to alleviate their pain, suffering or to remedy or avoid it in some sense. But it really is not only this.
The Importance of Compassion
In reality, compassion is not a feeling that is necessarily identified with sadness, but rather with feelings of worth, courage and respect for ourselves and others. It goes beyond our primal instincts.
In fact, for one of the world’s pioneering researchers of self-compassion (Kristin Neff, 2003), compassion for ourselves is based on:
- Being aware of and open to our own suffering
- Be kind and don’t condemn ourselves
- Being aware of sharing the experiences of suffering with others, instead of embarrassing ourselves or feeling alone, showing our common openness to humanity.
In addition, Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) devised by the British psychologist Paul Gilbert, was designed for people who presented complex and chronic mental problems derived from self-criticism, shame and who also came from conflictive environments.
That said, it seems then that not being ashamed of what we think and feel about ourselves is one of the things that makes us courageous and brave people. But there is much more to compassion.
Emotional regulation systems
There is research that indicates that our brain contains at least three emotional regulation systems to react to the things we perceive from the following systems (Paul Gilbert, 2009):
1. Threat and self-protection system
This system is the one in charge of detecting and responding quickly to fight, flee, remain paralyzed or face a situation, from anxiety, anger or disgust. The fear of being harmed in some sense would be their main fuel.
When this system is more activated than the others, we tend to interact with the world and the people around us, seeking protection and security against possible threats to our physical or mental integrity. As if we were in danger.
For better or for worse, it is a primitive system that prioritizes threats over pleasant things (Baumeister, Bratlavsky, Finkenauer & Vhons, 2001), and it is clear that at the time when we lived surrounded by beasts willing to devour us, it was very useful to us.
2. Incentive and resource search activation system
This system tries to offer us feelings that encourage us to get resources to be able to survive, prosper and satisfy our vital needs as human beings (Depue & Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005)
It is a system that seeks to feel rewarded with things such as sex, food, friendships, recognition or comfort that activates the threat and protection system when, for some reason, we are blocked from achieving these things.
That is, this system helps and motivates us to satisfy our basic vital needs as social beings, but sometimes an excess of it can lead us to desire goals that we cannot achieve and disconnect from what we can (Gilbert, 1984; Klinger 1977). . Consequently, we can feel frustrated, sad and overwhelmed when we feel that we are fully involved in our jobs or projects and things do not go as expected.
3. Comfort, satisfaction and safety system
This system helps us provide peace and balance in our lives. When animals do not have to defend themselves from threats or necessarily achieve something, they can be satisfied (Depue & Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005).
This system awakens feelings of satisfaction and security by making us feel that we do not need to fight to achieve something. It is about an internal peace that generates feelings of absence of needs and increases the connection with others.
Training ourselves in this system can make us compassionate and can be very effective for our well-being.
The kindness, tranquility and security that we can perceive from our environment towards ourselves act on brain systems that are also associated with feelings of satisfaction and joy generated by hormones called endorphins.
The Oxytocin is another hormone related (next to the enforfinas) with feelings of security in social relations that gives us feelings of feel loved, desired and secure with others (Carter, 1998; Wang, 2005).
In fact, there is increasing evidence that oxytocin is related to social support and reduces stress, and that people with low levels of it have high levels of response to stress (Heinrichs, Baumgatner, Kirschbaum, Ehlert, 2003 ).
Why does being compassionate take courage and bravery?
For this reason, being brave when relating to the world around us, establishing relationships, being open, not rejecting or avoiding or pretending to care about other people’s lives, may have to do with feeling well with ourselves and can also avoid developing psychological pathologies in the future. Because we like it or not, we are and continue to be social beings. And this is where compassion would come into play.
That is, thanks to this system of comfort, security and satisfaction, we can train ourselves to develop the qualities of compassion, and not get carried away by primal instincts that seek to satisfy our unsatisfied desires and needs at all times. But for the latter, large doses of courage and courage are needed.
Large doses of courage and bravery in the sense of being able to recognize ourselves that in terms of well-being, it is better to sometimes give up what we want (letting ourselves be carried away by systems based on threat or achievement), to prioritize to what we really value (comfort system, satisfaction and security).
- Baumeister, RF; Bratslavski, E; Finkeneauesr, C. and Vohs, KD (2001) “Bad is stronger so Good”, Review of General Psychology, 5: 323-370.
- Carter, CS (1998) “Neuroendocrine perspectives on social attachment and love”, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23: 779-818.
- Depue, RA and Morrone-Strupinsky, JV (2005) “A neurobehavioral model of affiliative bonding”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28: 315-395.
- Gilbert, P. (1984) Depression: From Psychology to Brain State. London: Lawrence Erbaum Associates Inc.
- Heinrichs, M .; Baumgartner, T .; Kirschbaum, C. and Ehlert, U. (2003) “Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective response to psychosocial stress”, Biological Psychiatry, 54: 1389-1398.
- Wang, S. (2005). “A conceptual framework for integrating research related to the physiology of compassion and the wisdom of Buddhist teachings” in P. Gilbert (Ed.), Compassion: Conceptualizations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy (pp. 75-120). London: Bruner. Routledge.