CompassionHeartTextFinal “How Can I Become More Compassionate?"

As he asked this question Thomas* struggled with a decision that would impact homeless people. The church he attended was planning a major relief project for homeless individuals living in the city’s downtown area. Thomas was trying to decide how much money, if any, to donate to the purchase of winter clothing and supplies for the relief effort. Intellectually, he believed that he should contribute to the cause; emotionally, he did not feel any measurable compassion for the homeless. In fact, sometimes he even felt critical of the homeless population, declaring that most of them could work and provide for themselves if they would become more self-responsible. In describing his struggles Thomas acknowledged that he had never been able to feel very compassionate toward people who were suffering from various losses or illnesses, yet he knew that, as a Christian, he was called to compassion. That’s when Thomas raised the question, “How can I become more compassionate?”

The lack of compassion for human suffering is not unique to Thomas. Many individuals in our contemporary world are much more likely to be critical than compassionate in regard to people who suffer with helplessness and homelessness. Other individuals are not openly critical but are basically apathetic; they simply don’t care one way or the other about needy people. Their response is not one of criticism but one of indifference. In contrast, many people today are characterized by genuine compassion, and their compassion calls and even compels them to provide help to people in need. The latter group is the one in which Thomas desired to have membership. He wanted to cultivate a heart of compassion.  

What about you? To what extent do you see yourself as a person with a heart of compassion? How interested are you in compassion development? Like Thomas, are you asking the question, “How can I become more compassionate?” Because you are reading this article I choose to believe that you are indeed interested in this important area of personal growth. We would all do well to examine the issue of compassion cultivation and then expand our capacity for healthy compassion.

Examining our compassion . . .

In our examination of compassion we need to understand its basic meaning. What is compassion and why it is so important to our well-being and happiness? Compassion could be defined as the emotional state of caring about someone who is struggling or suffering, and our caring prompts helpful action and positive behavior toward that person.  At its core compassion means that we feel so genuinely concerned about other people that we make every possible effort to relieve their suffering. Compassion is much more than “feeling sorry for someone” or “feeling sympathy for someone.” It is a process that involves both “what we feel” and “what we do.” Because we possess compassion we provide positive caregiving.

Sometimes we misunderstand the concept of compassion and conclude that by being compassionate we must literally experience all of the physical and/or emotional pain being felt by the other individual. That interpretation could motivate us to avoid compassion simply because the predicted cost of compassion is a price that’s too high to pay. Compassion does not mean that we take on the other person’s pain but rather that we are present with them as they experience their own pain. Our physical presence provides needed support, but we maintain enough emotional distance to protect ourselves. This emotional distance creates a type of boundary that safeguards us as caregivers. The setting and maintenance of that boundary is usually difficult for most of us, but without the boundary we are likely to take on too much of their pain and thereby compromise our effectiveness in the caregiving process.  The inability to maintain an appropriate boundary can lead to compassion fatigue, a dangerous condition we will explore later in this article.

We could consider compassion as a quality that is needed on three levels. First, we need to feel compassion for other people. Secondly, we need to be able to receive compassion from other people. This giving and receiving of compassion-driven behavior promotes an important sense of mutual connection with each other. Thirdly, we need to be willing to extend compassion toward ourselves in terms of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. In reality compassion is a quality that affects both the individual and his relationships with other people. How can we be happy if we are unable or unwilling to extend compassion to ourselves? Furthermore, how can any human relationship be experienced as healthy and satisfying without the consistent presence of mutual compassion? Without doubt we feel better and happier when we know that compassion is present and active within our individual selves and within our human relationships.

Expanding our Compassion . . .

Let’s recall the important question raised by Thomas:  “How can I become more compassionate?” What is the process through which we expand our current level of compassion? How can we enlarge our capacity for compassion? How do we cultivate more compassion? Many adults are very compassionate simply because they developed the quality as children through parental education and example, and that training was reinforced through various relevant activities or life experiences. In contrast, other adults, like Thomas, did not learn to be compassionate as children so they have to develop the quality after they reach adulthood. Our question remains: “How do we cultivate compassion?”

Unfortunately, this growth process is often hindered by a variety of obstacles. Compassion cultivation is difficult when we’ve had a painful history in which we were hurt or “burned” by previous negative experiences. Sooner or later everyone will be taken advantage of by a manipulative, irresponsible individual who is willing to hurt compassionate people in order to achieve his selfish goals. As a result of these negative experiences we might be reluctant to risk a compassionate lifestyle. The cultivation of compassion is also hindered by the negative harassment received from anti-compassion philosophies that are essentially narcissistic and self-serving. Motivated by these harmful philosophies our culture promotes the growth of passion—but not compassion. Therefore, our attempt to cultivate compassion could seem like swimming upstream against a powerful current of public anti-compassion sentiment. Another hindrance is habituation which is the learned pattern of becoming less affected by something we deal with on a frequent basis.  We simply get so used to pain and suffering that we begin to ignore it. We go through our daily activities without even seeing the suffering around us. We cease to be touched and moved by the agony of people about us. We become calloused and apathetic. The lack of awareness caused by habituation is a major obstacle for the growth of compassion. These three hindrances can certainly slow down or prevent altogether the cultivation of compassion. However, if we are committed to a compassionate lifestyle we must overcome these obstacles and move forward in our effort to expand our compassion.


Compassion could be thought of as a muscle that must be continuously strengthened through two types of regular exercise. First, we can strengthen our compassion muscle through external practice in real life situations. We really care about someone and we provide specific assistance.  In these real-life situations we say to someone who is suffering, “I care and would like to help. What’s the best thing I can do for you right now?” Then we actually provide the help that is needed, at least to the extent that we are capable.CompassionCircleX3

Secondly, we can strengthen our compassion muscle through an exercise I call internal progression training. The progression involves three questions we ask ourselves about someone who appears to be suffering or struggling. First, we ask ourselves “What is that person’s situation right now?” We try to imagine what life looks like at this moment to that person, and we try to see the situation from that person’s point of view. Through the first question we’re trying to generate compassionate thoughts about the individual. Secondly, we ask ourselves the question, “What emotions is that person feeling right now as he suffers from his hardship?” Through this second question we try to connect with the individual’s emotions and generate our own compassionate feelings toward the individual. Thirdly, we ask the question, “What does that person need right now in order to cope and get better?” We brainstorm about his personal needs and consider possible actions we could take to relieve the person’s suffering. Through this third question we try to generate compassionate actions toward the individual.

This progression exercise should be done with increased degrees of difficulty. Start with a close family member or loved one. Use your imagination and pretend that your loved one is suffering with some type of physical and/or emotional pain. Picture that person and explore the three questions. Try to think compassionate thoughts and try to experience feelings of compassion for that person. Imagine that you go to that person and actually provide some type of help that is needed. This progressive exercise includes compassionate thoughts, emotions, and actions. Next, repeat the exercise with a friend or acquaintance in mind. Then, imagine a stranger and complete the exercise. Finally, picture someone you consider to be an enemy, someone who would deliberately do you great harm. See if you can generate compassionate thoughts, feelings, and actions toward that individual. Through these exercises we literally expand both our circle of compassion and our capacity for compassion.  

The expansion or cultivation process is logical and predictable. Compassionate thoughts create compassionate feelings that produce compassionate actions. The process is circular and reinforcing as it is repeated over time. The more we practice compassion in real-life situations or through internal progression training the more our compassion muscle is strengthened and through this process more compassion is cultivated.

In order for us to be effective in the cultivation of compassion we might need to engage in some personal attitude adjustment, and we will need to become more action-oriented. Let’s consider the significance of both attitude and action.

Compassionate Attitudes . . .

In our efforts to expand our compassion we often require an adjustment in attitude. We must replace our tendency to be self-focused with a new pattern that is more outward-focused. We must change our belief system about other people in that they become as important, or perhaps more important, than we are. We start viewing other people as a part of our shared humanity; we’re “all in the same boat” with a great deal in common with each other. We want to look beneath the surface of people’s skin to see the “real person” who is there. We adjust our basic philosophy about people and things. Instead of loving things and using people we choose to love people and use things. We choose to believe the “Golden Rule” that says, “Do to others as you want them to do to you.” These types of attitude adjustments are essential for us in the growth of compassionate attitudes.  

Compassionate Actions . . .

The cultivation of compassion also requires the deliberate increase of compassionate actions.  As our attitudes about people become more positive we are usually able to generate positive changes in behavior toward other people. Without the achievement of positive action we are left with good intentions that lead nowhere. Conversely, with an action orientation we are able to expand our compassion through the exercise of compassionate behavior.

Let’s consider some potential activities through which we can strengthen our compassion muscle.

1. Take food and/or clothing to a needy or homeless individual.
2. Contribute money or supplies to organizations that assist the needy.
3. Visit a sick person in the hospital or at home.
4. Write a caring note of encouragement to someone who is struggling.
5. Make phone calls to elderly individuals who are “shut-in” at home.
6. Practice “random acts of kindness” to strangers when a need arises.
7. Participate in a medical mission trip sponsored by a local church.
8. Volunteer to work with the Red Cross or a similar disaster relief agency.
9. Get involved in your home church’s benevolence ministry.
10. Grow flowers to take to people who are struggling with loss or illness.
11. Interview a compassionate person and gain insight into compassion cultivation.
12. Spend time with a compassionate person and try to imitate their lifestyle.   

These activities represent positive actions we can take in order to practice and expand our compassion for people. Through these activities we can show compassion in three important areas. First, we can listen to their story of pain. Many sufferers find hope and healing in the process of sharing their personal story with a compassionate listener. Secondly, we can lead them through their suffering by providing helpful guidance. For example, we could help them identify additional resources for specific needs that exist. Thirdly, we can labor with them through physical actions to lift their burdens. We could clean their house, mow their grass, shop for food, or run errands. Through listening, leading, and laboring we can express compassion and also cultivate additional compassion.

About twelve years ago I began a personal effort to strengthen my compassion muscle. I realized that my Compassion Report Card included some pitifully low grades, so I decided to become more active and assertive in practicing compassion. In my ponderings I considered the importance of awareness, that is, the ability to see actual needs that exist. I shudder to think of the many times I failed to see an opportunity for compassion. In terms of physical vision most of us prefer to have 20/20 eyesight. In regard to compassion we also need 20/20 vision. If we fail to see the need that exists we will fail to feel and fulfill human compassion. However, vision alone is insufficient. Real compassion involves more than “seeing the need.” We must try to meet the need in a practical but appropriate manner. WCompassion20-20CLubith these thoughts in mind I started the “20/20 Compassion Club.” Since the activity was intended to be a private effort to be done in secret I hesitate to share the idea with you. However, I’m hopeful that you might decide to start your own “Compassion Club.”  So, here’s how the club worked. I set aside the annual sum of $400.00 to be given away as needed in $20.00 increments. My goal was to give away twenty $20.00 bills throughout the year to individuals who seemed to need the financial help and the personal encouragement. I kept several twenty-dollar bills in a separate compartment in my billfold to insure that I always had money available for use. As I went about my daily activities I would look for people who could use a “compassionate gift” and would give the individual a $20.00 bill with the least amount of attention possible.  I would say something like “God has blessed me, and he wants me to share this gift with you. He loves you and wants to bless your life as well.” The gift was shared as anonymously as possible. Any money that remained at the end of the year was given to the church for a benevolence-oriented ministry. In January I would start over with another $400.00 of twenty-dollar bills. I must confess that I have not practiced the plan perfectly every year, but the activity has definitely helped me to expand my compassion. I’m hopeful that you would want to try a similar project. You could follow the plan that I developed, or you could modify the effort however you prefer. For example, you could begin a “5/20 Compassion Club” in which you share a total of $100.00 each year through giving away twenty $5.00 bills. If your attitude is right any effort you make will be a positive demonstration of your current compassion for people and will enable you to expand your capacity for additional compassion.

Parents are responsible for cultivating compassion within their children. This cultivation is done in three ways: education, example, and experience. First, the parents will provide regular instruction about the meaning of compassion and the role it plays in everyday life. Secondly, the parents will set a positive example for the children by their personal practice of compassionate behavior. Thirdly, the parents will schedule specific activities through which their children will experience compassion behavior. For example, one compassionate mother took her two children on several occasions to work together at a local food bank. There they worked for hours sorting and arranging various food items that would later be distributed to needy families. On numerous occasions another compassionate mother took her children (along with their father) to a downtown area where they encouraged and helped homeless people. Additionally, parents can use movies or television shows as opportunities for discussing the presence (or absence) of human compassion. They can give their children books to read that contain positive examples of compassion. If you are a parent with children at home you still have time to promote the cultivation of compassion in their lives. Every effort you make will help them in adulthood to practice a lifestyle of compassion.

Exhausting our Compassion . . .

In this article our main focus is upon the growth of compassion. However, we must also consider the possible loss of compassion. Just as compassion can be expanded it can also be exhausted. This exhaustion of compassion is sometimes described as “compassion fatigue.” While definitions may vary compassion fatigue refers to the secondary traumatic stress that we can develop through our efforts to help people who are suffering from traumatic events. It is sometimes described as “caregiver stress” or “compassion stress.” Basically, we reach a point in our caregiving activities where we start experiencing chronic emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. Symptoms can include irritability, sleep problems, and decreased satisfaction with life. We can also become resentful, cynical, and sarcastic toward the person we’re trying to help. Essentially, we develop compassion fatigue because we are out-of-balance in that we tend to be overly-focused upon the other person while we neglect to practice good stewardship of ourselves. When we fail to take good care of ourselves we areCompassionFatigue3Text very likely to experience compassion fatigue.

Some stress is normal and natural when we try to help people during times of trauma and suffering. The first goal is to prevent the normal stress from turning into compassion fatigue, and the second goal is to manage compassion fatigue if it does occur. We can practice three tips that can help with prevention and management.

First, we must redefine our roles. Our purpose is to be physically present and helpful to the person in trauma and suffering. We do not take on or personalize their pain; we allow them to experience their own pain. Who actually owns the pain?  The person who is suffering. We recognize and accept the limitations inherent in our role as caregivers.

Secondly, we must continually recharge our batteries through effective self-caring activities. We are not the Energizer Bunny who can work forever. We take time for personal rest and relaxation. We try to get regular exercise and good nutrition. We schedule regular medical checkups. We resist the temptation to depend upon alcohol, illicit drugs, or any addictive behavior in our effort to survive.

Thirdly, we need to restructure our stressors as much as possible. We set and maintain healthy boundaries with the person being helped. We identify and use appropriate resources (like respite care) to help us carry the load of caregiving. The restructuring process means that we learn to prioritize wisely. We focus on the responsibilities that are of the highest importance, and we give ourselves permission to release and leave undone the tasks that are of lesser importance.
These three tips are vital to our survival as caregivers. To be effective in caregiving we must take good care of ourselves. That’s not selfishness; it’s survival! A Christian man recently shared a Scripture that has been of great benefit to him. He referred to Jesus’ statement to his apostles recorded in Mark 6:31. The Twelve had just returned from an intensive ministry effort and were reporting their activities to Jesus when crowds of people showed up and requested healing. The apostles began ministering to the crowds but were soon interrupted and stopped by Jesus. He said to them, “Come apart and rest.” Then he took them away to a private place where they rested. Clearly, Jesus recognized their stress level and their need for rest. At that time Jesus placed their self-caring as a higher priority than their ministry work. Regarding this particular Scripture one fellow made the comment, “Jesus said to come apart and rest; most of us just come apart.” There is significant truth in his observation. If we fail to take care of ourselves through appropriate self-caring activities we do run the risk of “coming apart.” Positive self-caring will increase our ability to prevent or manage compassion fatigue.

Concluding Thoughts . . .

CompassionHighwayTextCompassion is a vital component for both individual and relationship health. Therefore, we would all do well to work toward becoming more compassionate. Thankfully, compassion is a quality that can be cultivated through appropriate thoughts, feelings, and actions. Life is better when we extend compassion to others, receive compassion from others, and extend compassion toward ourselves. When we choose to excel in compassion we begin a meaningful and satisfying journey on the Compassion Highway.

By the way, are you wondering what Thomas did in regard to donating to the church’s relief project for homeless people? He decided to make a sizable contribution to the project and later reported feeling a sense of joy and satisfaction for his involvement. Through his action Thomas exercised his compassion muscle and thereby began to expand his capacity for compassion. The positive choice he made was only one of many similar choices he would make in the months ahead as began to travel on the Compassion Highway.

I compliment you for your personal interest in becoming more compassionate. I wish you the best as you strive to cultivate compassion and to practice compassion on a day-to-day basis. I hope that your personal journey on the Compassion Highway will produce great benefit to you as an individual and to your human relationships.



                                                                          (Mental Health Blog #1318)

                                                             * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

*Disclaimer:  The name “Thomas” does not describe a specific individual, but it is used to represent men and women everywhere who struggle with issues of compassion.



Related Article:  Dr. Baker has also written and published on this website a related article entitled “Compelled by Compassion.” That article explores compassion from a Biblical perspective based upon the “Golden Rule.” To read the article please click on the link below or click on the image to the right.

       “Compelled by Compassion”




VIDEO:  To view a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses “Using Music as Medicine” please click on the image to the right or click here.









VIDEO:  To watch a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Managing Compassion Fatigue" please click on the image to the right or click here.











(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)














9340 Helena Road, Suite F123 • Birmingham, AL • 35244-1747 • p# - (205)305-3073

• Copyright © 2011 • Dr Bill