Counselling and psychotherapy

The compassionate self

A response to our interview with Paul Gilbert, from Jasmin Kaur Gill.

15 May 2018

In the interview ‘Compassion is an antidote to cruelty’ (February 2018) Professor Paul Gilbert provides a thought-provoking argument that the science of compassion can improve humanity by increasing the more positive adaptive states that evolved in humans. Compassion-focused therapy can help people develop compassion for others and for themselves. However, I would like to draw attention to what is meant by ‘compassion’. Gilbert is right in his argument that compassion is an antidote to cruelty, but I feel there are multiple conceptualisations that blur the boundaries of compassion and create problems for scientific study.

Gilbert’s views correspond to those of the Dalai Lama, who referred to compassion as ‘not helpless pity, but an awareness and determination that demands action’. Compassion is therefore a motivator to alleviate distress. However, other conceptualisations include compassion as a discrete emotion, a biological resource and a dispositional trait. These definitions guide compassion interventions. In a 2016 review, James Kirby found some interventions cultivated compassion as an evolved system to cope with adversities in life, whilst others manipulated positive emotions for acute relief. In the Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Jennifer Gotez and Emiliana Simon-Thomas suggested a working definition that incorporates multiple components of compassion as, variously, a motivator to alleviate distress, a subjective emotion, and a biologically driven system for survival. I think this holistic perspective of compassion offers unity between these concepts to remain in line with the scientific field of compassion.

Yet Tibetan Buddhist principals advocate compassion as a basic human need, whereas evolutionary theorists imply compassion is an innate resource to aid survival of the human species. Is such a unity between these fields possible, and is compassion a tool that can unify these teachings? Religious and evolutionary teachings have a long-standing conflict but appear to converge in the science of compassion. In my opinion, compassion is both a survival adaptation and a virtue. Although, it is well documented that there is cultural differentiation in how compassion is expressed, the presence of compassion as universal is not disputed. Perhaps then, compassion is also an archetype and embedded within a collective unconscious shared by humanity. We can all appreciate compassion, in whatever form it might take.

Furthermore, self-compassion is kept distinct from compassion for others. In a study conducted in 2013 by Kristen Neff and Elizabeth Pommier, compassion directed towards the self was found to increase compassion shown to others. These are not the first findings to demonstrate self-kindness involves a component of kindness and concern for others. Brain studies have shown exercises cultivating self-compassion activated similar neuronal activity when evoking empathy. Kristen Neff also reported over a decade ago that those highly self-compassionate are kind to others and themselves in a similar manner. I argue research and methods of measurement should not draw a clear distinction between self-compassion and compassion for others. There should be a cross-over between these two concepts as the research suggests. Perhaps it could be considered that kindness for others is what differentiates self-compassion from self-pity. Self-compassion is not merely the extension of kindness towards the self but instead is a form of expressing compassion for others.

Jasmin Kaur Gill
Postgraduate student
De Montfort University