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The Competency of Compassion: A Cornerstone of Healing and Recovery

The Competency of Compassion: A Cornerstone of Healing and Recovery

By Michael E. Berrett, PhD, CEDS

Certainly in this age in which we live, there is an incredible need to nurture and increase, and notice and celebrate, compassion. The campaigns and acts of terror; the seemingly unprecedented natural disasters; the divisions, conflicts, and hatred freely expressed and enacted in public discourse; no shortage of illnesses—these all verify that this is a time of high need for compassion. In this article, I propose a model of compassion that takes from, and adds to, the works of wonderful thought leaders, researchers, writers, and clinicians. I offer a model that expands compassion into the broader context, with an environment in which compassion is nurtured, and offer consideration of seven specific competencies, which, if practiced, will increase compassion for ourselves and for those around us. This context and model can be used to benefit ourselves, our family and friends, our broader community, our clients, and our brothers and sisters wherever we may find them. This article presents as follows: 1) Meaning of compassion; 2) Personal brushes with compassion; 3) Creating a cradle that nurtures compassion; 4) The practice of seven core competencies of compassion; 5) The impact of compassion; 6) Final thoughts.

Meaning of Compassion

So what is compassion? It is in the eye and the definition of the beholder. According to the Dalai Lama, “Compassion can be roughly defined in terms of a state of mind that is nonviolent, nonharming, and nonaggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering.” Jinpa (2016) said compassion is “sensitivity to suffering with a commitment to alleviate and prevent it.” Berrett (2017) suggests that compassion is not just a feeling—but includes intention and action. Compassion is akin not to “feeling sorry for,” but rather, “feeling loving kindness toward,” according to Germer and Neff (2013). “Compassion … involves 1) being touched by and open to suffering, 2) not avoiding or becoming disconnected from it, and 3) generating the desire to alleviate suffering and heal with kindness” (Germer & Neff, 2013).

Compassion is not just a choice and opportunity. It is necessary for effective treatment and solid recovery from eating disorders and related illnesses. Over many years of treating those suffering, I have learned that self-compassion is a necessary ingredient in recovery and healing. It is also helpful for clients to understand that they have great compassion for others, that it is a precious gift, and that they can notice their compassion, embrace it, and practice it. This recognition of compassion—seeing it as something they have to give that can affect others for the good—can increase understanding of personal spiritual identity. As clients progress in recovery, compassion is one of the “take-home gifts” of having suffered an eating disorder. It counterbalances the collateral damage of illness. Increased compassion is one of the blessings that often come to those who have traveled that difficult pathway. Compassion is essential in the journey of both clinical provider and client.

Compassion is one foundation stone of the spirituality of an individual, is essential for loving and close emotional relationships, and is a sign of health and hope in communities and in the world. It is a practice and a power that can transform for good, the world that we live in, one individual at a time. When compassion is present, it so often comes across as the feeling “that which is right in our world.” When it is absent, it is at the center of “what is wrong in our world.” Compassion is necessary for a safe, uplifting, and improving society, and it is necessary for finding peace in an individual’s troubled heart.

As a veteran clinician, I have noticed that self-compassion is a cornerstone of recovery for those suffering mental, emotional, or addictive illness; that it is imperative for the improvement of couple and family relationships; and that it is at the core of the healing power of therapeutic group process—in which shame and pain meet healing. I have noticed that when clinicians practice it well in their work, miracles happen.

It has been suggested that compassion is not simply an emotion that we might feel toward another, but rather, it is a “practice” and “a way of living.” While we will have emotion at times when receiving or giving compassion, compassion is much more. It is a choice, a decision, something we give, and something we do. The implication of the word practice is that we need not be labeled as either “compassionate” or “non-compassionate” people, but that we can choose, and be, compassionate in a moment, and that we can “become” more compassionate as individuals over time and by the regular practicing of compassion.

Berrett (2017) suggests several philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the practice of compassion: 1) An understanding that each individual member of the human family is equal and of immeasurable and incredible worth that transcends all human understanding; 2) It is the calling of all members of the human family to reduce human suffering whenever they have an opportunity, within their sphere, and within their ability to do so; 3) Members of the human family can best “find themselves” when they “lose themselves” in the service of others; 4) Compassion is important and well-needed since there is pain and adversity and suffering all around us, and with us; 5) Compassion is a competency that can be learned, and with daily practice, it can become a way of living and, finally, a part of who we are; 6) Compassion is a matter of the heart since yielding to the heart brings compassion; 7) Compassion and loving kindness are foundational principles that underlie all genuine acts of service, as well as provision of care.

Personal Brushes with Compassion

I first learned compassion from kind parents, who loved me and never gave up on me no matter what my mistakes and troubles were, and even when the suffering in my life was self-inflicted. They not only loved and cared for their children, but took into their home and into their lives immigrants, whose needs and suffering they perceived, and for whom they felt and freely gave compassion.

I learned more about compassion when I was a drug- and alcohol-addicted youth. I will never forget my math teacher Mr. Monson, a nerdish and kindhearted teacher who knew personally what it meant to suffer ridicule from many and on a regular basis. I came into his class under the influence fairly regularly, and I was one who willfully refused to abide his reasonable rules for class. Despite these two strikes against me, Mr. Monson asked me each and every day of attendance, “Michael—how about coming in after school so I can help you with homework? I really want you to pass my class.” I knew my family loved me—I figured they had to. I knew that Mr. Monson cared about me with a tender and sincere heart. I remember feeling a little compassion for him, and I remember knowing that he had much compassion for me.

I learned of compassion again later in my life. About a dozen years ago, I was on a humanitarian trip, working in the Soweto slum of Nairobi, Kenya. Our goal was to complete a third story of a school and orphanage. It was important to get some of the children off the dangerous streets at night. The building blocks, sand, cement, and water were all carried by hand up to the third floor. As we did our hard labor, we were ever aware that many of the children on the streets would not receive a meal that day, and that those lucky enough to be in the school compound would get their only meal, a meager one, there in the school. Many children did not have the opportunity of going to school. From the third floor one day, I looked down at the street. I saw a 7-year-old boy holding an apple that someone in our group had given him. Very soon, he was surrounded by 15 or 20 other children who were reaching and begging for some of the apple. This little boy took a bite out of the apple, switched hands holding the apple, took the piece of apple out of his mouth, and gave that piece to a small child. He kept biting off pieces and giving them out to the other starving and reaching children. Soon the apple was gone. I noticed that all the children surrounding the boy with the apple got a little piece of it, except one—the boy who had held and shared the apple. He had such compassion for his friends—the starving children—that he forgot himself and gave it all away. With tears on my cheeks and a full heart, I learned a lesson about compassion and sacrifice that day that I will never forget.

There have been countless teachers for me of what compassion is. Some of these great teachers have been within the field of eating disorders. I mention just a few of the very many: Don Blackwell, Randy Hardman, Norman Kim, Sondra Kronberg, Michael Levine, Margo Maine, Beth McGilley, Adrienne Ressler, Nikki Rollo, Karen Samuels, Kathy Cortese, Jenni Schaefer, and Ken Willis. There are also many in the general field of healing and wellness, which for me have included: Patch Adams, Terry Eagan, Ronald Siegel, and Lewis Smedes. Then there are spiritual leaders who have taught us about compassion: Saladin, Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ, and Gandhi. I also express gratitude for the works and writings on compassion by contemporary thought leaders on the topic, including Brené Brown, Fred Lee, Christopher Germer, Kristin Neff, Thupten Jinpa, and Paul Gilbert—for their useful models, inspiring stories, and practical ideas that help us think about, understand, and operationalize principles for our clinical work and for the personal therapeutic work of our clients.

Creating a Cradle that Nurtures Compassion

Several authors have taught in their models of compassion that sympathy, empathy, self-kindness, loving kindness, common humanity, mindfulness, and compassion are uniquely different from each other, despite similarities and commonalities. These models look at those concepts as differentiated, smaller in scope, and very specific. While there is great value in these, the model presented here attempts to broaden out the concept of compassion by looking at those principles and practices that create an environment in which compassion is more likely to occur.

Berrett suggests that compassion is nurtured and developed in a cradle of human characteristics, principles, and choices. Those foundational underpinnings that create this cradle include: vulnerability, gratitude, attunement, understanding individual worth, loving kindness, emotional support, a heart at peace, empathy, a grateful heart, and an understanding that a better world begins with changing oneself for the better. When this foundation or environment for compassion is in place, then the practicing of core competencies of compassion can lead to the healing power of compassion, which, when coupled with the competencies of skilled care and treatment, can lead to recovery and healing. The model is illustrated by the graphic below.

The model below illustrates a spectrum of both giving and receiving compassion for both the provider and client that offers six distinct arenas in which compassion can be practiced, and in which therapeutic focus can occur to achieve specific needs within the therapeutic relationship. In each arena, focus can be given and specific interventions implemented. The six potential areas for therapeutic focus: 1) Self-compassion of the provider; 2) Ability and willingness of the provider to receive compassion from others; 3) The provider’s compassion for clients and others; 4) The self-compassion of the client; 5) The ability and willingness of the client to receive compassion from others; 6) The client’s compassion for others. 

The Practice of Seven Core Competencies of Compassion

The following is a review of various conceptualizations of compassion including the works of Germer and Neff (2013), Gilbert (2009), and Brown (2010) and, in consideration of personal experience and a new developing model, Berrett (2017). It is proposed as a compilation, expansion, and additional model of “competencies of compassion.” It is as follows: 1) The intention of compassion; 2) The ability to notice/presence/mindfulness; 3) The ability to see individual worth and goodness; 4) Engagement; 5) Joining the client; 6) Imagination of client experience and suffering; 7) The practice of loving kindness.

  1. The Intention of Compassion

One key element of compassion is intentional: “We wish for relief of suffering” (Jinpa, 2010). We have an internalized value of viewing and experiencing everyone in every circumstance with understanding, kindness, and a refusal to be judgmental. This “deep desire” to be compassionate is well-demonstrated in a Civil War–era letter from Abraham Lincoln to General William Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Southwest, concerning the proposed execution of a Confederate officer. Lincoln wrote: “… I turn it over to you with full confidence that you will do what is just and right; only begging you, my dear General, to do nothing in reprisal for the past—only what is necessary to ensure security for the future; and remind you that we are not fighting against a foreign foe, but our brothers, and that our aim is not to break their spirits but only to bring back their old allegiance. Conquer by kindness—let that be our policy. Very truly yours, A. Lincoln.” Clearly, Lincoln had the intention of compassion, and he gently guided others to do the same.

Activity: 1) Consider writing in a journal or other special place of your desire to be compassionate, and to whom you would like to feel and give increased compassion; 2) Consider what that compassion will look like in application; 3) Share your feelings and desires of this with a trusted friend or family member.

  1. The Ability to Notice/Presence/Mindfulness

According to Jinpa (2010), “One key element of compassion is cognitive: the awareness of suffering.” Once noticed, the suffering individual must be attended to, which involves “not avoiding” and “not becoming disconnected from it.” In other words, we have to notice suffering, emotionally and mentally go to it, and attend to it, despite the suffering that may come up inside of ourselves, and stay present with that suffering, and with the individual, so that we are there with that person and willing to remain there for a time. This component of compassion requires the will and the ability and choice to notice the important things in our lives and in others’, including the inner workings of ourselves, beauty, blessings in our lives, and the suffering and needs of others. A willingness to live “in presence” allows us to attend to and engage that which we have noticed. In compassion, we notice others—not as objects, but as fellow pilgrims, brothers, and sisters with weaknesses, strengths, needs, and desires, just like us. We notice without judgment. I am reminded of the story of the violinist in the subway of a large city, who unbeknownst to any subway travelers, beyond his raggedy clothes and hat on the cement with a couple dollars in it, was a world-famous violinist, with a million-dollar instrument, playing one of the most beautiful and intricate pieces of music ever written. There were few who noticed enough to even look his way, let alone stop for a few minutes and enjoy the beautiful gift he freely gave through his music. We can improve our ability to notice and attend to our noticing.

I remember a personal story. A couple of years ago, on a business trip, I had a layover in the airport of Charlotte, North Carolina. To my surprise, the men’s bathroom there was immaculate—I would say even sparkling. In almost perfect cleanliness, it was like the restroom in a Ritz-Carlton hotel. I was so impressed that I felt I had to find the person who was responsible for that clean restroom. After a little searching and asking a few people some strange questions, I was pointed toward the keeper of the restroom. I approached a small black, elderly man, who was scarcely 5’2” tall. I asked, “Are you the man who is responsible for keeping that men’s restroom clean?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “I want you to know that I have traveled the world and been in some of the best hotels anywhere, and I want you to know that is the cleanest restroom I have ever seen, and I want to say thank you for your wonderful service for me and everyone else who comes here.” I then gave him a $30 tip, to which he responded, with tears, “Why thank you, sir—and may God bless you.” This man seemed as if he had never received a positive compliment about his work in his entire life. While my goal in this moment was not compassion, but, rather, recognition and expression and gratitude, I knew from our exchange that this man could definitely use the extra money in his meager provision for family. We both had tears in our eyes as we looked at each other. While I have “not noticed” important things a million times, this is one time when I gratefully did notice, and I know it affected my life for the better, and I believe it affected his, as well.

Activity: 1) Ask yourself: What have you noticed about feelings of the heart, impressions to recognize or to act connected to the suffering of another?; 2) Now ask: Do you stay with your noticing to the point of being present, mindful, and attending to it?

  1. The Ability to See Individual Worth and Goodness

At the very ground floor of the practice of compassion is the understanding that every single individual has value and worth beyond human comprehension that is real, God-given, unalterable, unchangeable, and unconditional. It simply IS! To practice compassion without this strong belief or internalized understanding results in a weak foundation. We must, therefore, be willing to see ourselves and others with eyes and with a heart willing to see humanity—that is, the imperfection and unconditional worth of each person, no exceptions. This principle and truth was taught well by Mother Teresa (1995), who said, “I serve them not because they are broken, but because they are holy.”

Two brief stories illustrate this principle. There is the simple story of the little girl who was walking on the beach with her grandfather. Hundreds of thousands of starfish had washed up on the shore, and the little girl was throwing them back into the sea, one at a time, to save them. Her grandfather saw her labor and said, “Honey, you can’t possibly save them all. There are millions of them stranded upon the beach—you can’t possibly make a difference.” With loving and gentle defiance and determination, she picked up another starfish and, looking her grandfather in the eye, said, “Well, it made a difference to that one.” In that moment, a wise grandfather was schooled by a beloved youngster about determination, integrity, and compassion.

Activity #1: Reflection and sharing: 1) Choose a friend, family member, acquaintance, or stranger, and ask that person to sit with you and talk for just a moment; 2) Share with your partner for several minutes about what you do and who you are; 3) Ask the person to likewise share with you; 4) After the sharing, look into the face of your partner and reflect on what you noticed about his or her goodness as that person shared; 5) As you look into your partner’s eyes, share with him or her what it is you noticed about that person’s goodness; 6) Ask your partner to take a turn in likewise sharing back with you; 7) Take a minute after that exercise to discuss/process that activity on what it was like to notice the goodness of another and to have someone notice the goodness in you.

Activity #2: 1) Choose someone toward whom you have had hard, difficult, hurt, or angry feelings; 2) Imagine being with that person, and then imagine that despite his or her weaknesses or mistakes, that the person truly has good intentions, and then imagine being with him or her again. How do you feel, and what do you notice? (Adapted from Brown, 2015.)

  1. Engagement

Jinpa (2010) proposed that one competency of compassion is “paying attention to it” or “attending to the suffering.” I believe this means that we “go to” the suffering, rather than “sitting and waiting.” We do not wait to see what will happen, nor simply hope things will be OK, nor assume that someone else will care for the sufferer. In engagement, there is no “diffusion of responsibility,” but rather, the commitment to simply go to the suffering when it reveals itself. This “engagement” is the opposite of ignoring, pretending, hesitating, avoiding, or waiting. As Brené Brown has taught, engagement requires vulnerability. There is no time to ensure that we are doing the right thing, or that we are doing the thing right. We honor and act on the first message, the first impulse, the first morsel of understanding that someone needs us, and that person needs us now. They need us to climb into their place of pain with them, sit with them, and respond to their need in their darkest hour. In engagement, fear is replaced with courage, and hesitance is replaced with clarity. In engagement, we don’t hold back, and we don’t give token gestures. We give of ourselves and we dive in for the work and we stop only when our work in that moment is done. While we may not be able to stay until the pain is gone, or through each healing step—we stay for what is needed in that place, for that time. In moments of engagement, all other interests are suspended except this suffering soul and that person’s immediate needs.

I once had the opportunity to be on the roster of presenters at a mental-health conference in Alaska. The most notable speaker there was Dr. Patch Adams. I watched in awe as he taught us all about compassion. One learning tool was a brief video that revealed his touching work with a 7-year-old wheelchair-bound, handicapped young girl from an Eastern European country. It was said that this little crumpled and despondent girl hadn’t looked “up or out” for years. As Adams did his miraculous and engaging work, including gently touching his red Styrofoam clown’s nose on her cheek, smiling, and gently talking with loving kindness, the girl shed some tears of joy, looked up and out across the landscape, and saw the park, the birds, and the people. She came out of her cage of fear at the safe invitation of this spiritual man. A man in the audience asked a question when it was Q&A time: “Dr. Adams,” he said, “what do you do if after all that work, you can’t make them smile or laugh?” I was sitting very close to Adams, and could see and sense his frustration at this man’s question. He walked to the edge of the stage, and with a raised arm and fist and pointing finger, began thumping an imaginary chest in air. “Hey, listen,” he said, with deep emotional resolve to teach any mistaken participant. “It’s not my job to make them smile or laugh. It’s my job to get engaged in their life.” The room was silent. In that moment, this understanding of compassion and several pieces of wisdom hit me like a freight train. I learned that in works of compassion, we don’t control outcome—we simply dive in and give everything we have—and that sometimes, our preoccupation with controlling outcome can be a distraction from the simple calling of compassion as an antidote to suffering alone. Let us continue to get engaged without self-doubt, fear, or hesitation, and let us not ignore that first impression to do so.

Activity: 1) Think of someone whom you know to be in a difficult place, suffering a loss, or living with sadness or hardship; 2) Reach out to that person—and not with the common statement we all know, “I’m sorry about your struggle and let me know if you need anything”—just go to that person and say, “Here I am to be with you,” and then commence the practice of compassion.

  1. Joining the Client

Imagine for a moment being back in time, in 300 BC in Rome, Italy, and being a spectator of the gladiators in the great Colosseum. Witnessing live that violence, carnage, and suffering would have been overwhelming and traumatic for most of us. I imagine that those sitting in the seats closest to the floor of the arena might have had a greater sense of the gravity of the experience of each individual—and, thus, potentially a greater opportunity to experience compassion. The farther away the seats and spectators are from the floor where the action takes place, the greater the potential for distance, and less awareness and connection, and, thus, the less potential for compassion. Brown (2015) introduced this metaphor of “floor, stadium, and seats,” and expressed it in this way: “Seeing the world from the floor of the arena is central to the concept of compassion.” In compassion, we must join their world, walk in their shoes, and emotionally go to where they are. In joining, we don’t make the individual come to where we are—physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually—but rather, we go to them. We join them in their beliefs, perspectives, practices, intentions, passions, purposes, and their deepest dreams and desires. We join them in their fear, pain, and their suffering. Joining increases understanding and, thus, increases the potential for compassion. Joining is “embracing them” where they are.

Inspired by Brown’s work, I suggest that in our compassion, we don’t reach down and “pull people up”— we find them, we climb down into the darkness and suffering with them, we sit with them, we wait, we listen, and we attend to them. After this—and only after this—we may gently lift them up “with gentle kindness.”

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” —Pema Chödrön (2001b)

And so, in empathy and compassion, we live with them in that place and encourage them, “Tell me more.” I learned this firsthand observing the good works of a remarkable healer, Adrienne Ressler, who invites her clients in this way: “Tell me what it is like to be you …”

Activity: 1) Get with a partner you feel comfortable with, whether it’s a colleague, friend, or family member; 2) Pick one source of personal suffering in your life; 3) Ask your partner to join you in your place of suffering; 4) Share with your partner about this difficulty and related suffering; 5) Ask your partner to take the same four steps above; 6) Share with each other what you notice in yourself and in your partner during and reflecting on this experience together.

  1. Imagination of Client Experience and Suffering

The beginning of imagination of client experience and suffering is listening to what is said and also that which is not said. We must be observant, attentive, and willing and able to notice. In the quest for listening, Stephen Covey taught, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” As we truly listen intently, to words both spoken and implied between the lines, we gain information that better helps us imagine our clients’ suffering.

In the absence of the data that comes from observing, noticing, and truly listening, we make up our own stories about others and ourselves, either with negative judgment or with the giving of good intent. Negative judgment and compassion cannot abide in the same place in space and time. We can learn about the situation and experience of the one suffering by gently asking questions to find out more. This can add to our observation, and it can aid in our imagining of client experience, as well. Questions might include: “What is happening to you?” or “What is it like to be in your situation right now?” While questions can deepen understanding in time of suffering, too much questioning too soon can take us away from “just being present” and take us away from that person and into a world of problem-solving.

When we find ourselves judging another, we might find increased compassion by asking ourselves some reflective questions that will lead us into imagination of another’s suffering. Those questions include: “What would it take for me to feel the way they are feeling, act the way they are acting, and be the way they are being in this moment?” This question practiced can not only help with imagination, it can also decrease our judgment of others and open the door to compassion.

Imagination of client experience and suffering is something we do in the presence of another’s suffering. The Dalai Lama taught, “Imagine a situation in which another being is suffering. This is a Buddhist technique for embracing suffering and practicing compassion.” Fred Lee taught, “In the moment of imagination, we are in tune with the emotional content of our patient’s experience,” and, “Through imagination we can experience things that have never happened to us.” Randy Hardman suggested that “increasing compassion for others who are in a predicament from poor choices comes as we reflect on some of our predicaments, which have come from some of our poor choices—I too was there.” With or without the verbal sharing of a client, we imagine that person’s life, situation, experience, and suffering—we put ourselves with that person, “in their shoes.”

Activity #1: 1) Get with a partner for this exercise—both of you should take each step; 2) Look deeply and carefully at the following work of art, which was created by a wonderful woman who was suffering from the pain of many sources, including abuse, eating disorder illness, and broken relationships with self and others; 3) Close your eyes and connect with your own heart and your own “mind’s eye”; 4) Imagine the individual who drew this picture and what her life is like; 5) Tell your partner what you believe and understand about the one suffering; 6) Notice and talk about your compassion; 7) Invite your partner to talk about his or her feelings of compassion, as well.


Activity #2: 1) Find a safe and comfortable place, sit back, close your eyes, and listen to the song “Desperado,” as performed by the Eagles or Linda Ronstadt; 2) While listening to the music, find one place or source of loneliness in your life; 3) Allow yourself to become clear about and experience some of that suffering; 4) Find good intent in your heart and about wanting connection with others; 5) Find compassion for you for the suffering you have had and now have; 6) Express to yourself your sadness for you, and the love and concern behind that sadness; 7) Ponder the meaning of self-compassion in your life. 

  1. The Practice of Loving Kindness

There is a beautiful story entitled “Night Watch” (Popkin, 1965) in which a young man in a Marine Corps uniform entered a hospital, was mistakenly identified by a nurse, was invited into a room with an elderly and dying man, and held the hand of this man for many hours and stayed with him, even though the young man didn’t even know who this dying man was. The elderly man was heavily sedated and could not see “his son” sitting by him, but held tightly to his hand until he took his very last breath. When the nurse arrived after the patient passed, she said to the young Marine, “I am sorry about the loss of your father.” The young man let her know of the mistaken identity in this way: “I knew right off there had been a mistake, but I also knew that he needed his son, and his son just wasn’t there. When I realized he was too sick to see whether or not I was his son, I figured he really needed me, so I stayed.”

The story above teaches that one element of compassion is “making skillful action to alleviate [suffering].” This action is both motivational and behavioral (Jinpa, 2010; Rollo & Kim, 2016). The practice of compassion for suffering involves “responsiveness to relieve it” (Jinpa, 2010). It begins with the action of “being with” and then goes from there. This is the action phase of compassion that empowers, expresses, enacts, and activates. We can create action-oriented practices and rituals for others, such as writing cards to the suffering, and delivering care or food. In addition, we can act in loving kindness for ourselves by accepting feelings without self-judgment, asking for help, and sharing with others to end our aloneness.

There is a story of a spiritual man in the 1800s who was in a conversation with several men. They were intently talking of the adversity and plight of a man in town and his suffering family. After several minutes of discussion, the spiritual man said, “I also have great compassion and sympathy for this man and his family—in fact, I have sympathy to the tune of $10.” He then took off his hat, turned it into a collection dish, and asked the others, “How much is your compassion worth in the interest and benefit of this poor family?” Compassion includes activity—from “being with” to other various interventions of loving kindness, according to need. We have often heard, “Love is a verb.”

One of the most important acts of loving kindness to oneself and to others is to recognize and tell the truth about the goodness and the positive impact that a person has had in individual lives and in spheres of their influence. These truths about oneself are often unnoticed and unrecognized and, consequently, a potential gift of kindness “unreceived.” As we are willing to see the truth about our impact and its value in the lives of others, we give a gift also to ourselves. This is the “recognition of impact.”

Activity #1: 1) Close your eyes and think of a time, place, and individual who extended loving kindness to you in your time of need; 2) Allow yourself to feel, see, experience, and remember what that person has done for you; 3) Get in touch with your feelings of gratitude and love for that person, for his or her kindness to you.

Activity #2: 1) Close your eyes and imagine one person in your life whom you have helped; 2) In your own “mind’s eye,” see that person’s face and facial expressions, and look also into his or her heart; 3) Recognize the impact of your loving kindness and efforts on that person’s life, which influenced him or her for good, either in the internal workings and feelings of that person’s heart and sense of self, or in the practical circumstances of his or her life; 4) Look into that person’s face and see, hear, and embrace his or her gratitude to you for the gift of kindness that you extended to him or her.

The Impact of Compassion

The impacts of compassion are tremendous.

First, as we practice compassion, we will forge relationships that have depth, in which there is loyalty and in which there is a closeness and bond that will never be forgotten. When we receive compassion in time of need, we feel we have “found a home,” and we will desire to come back home.

Second, as we give the gift of compassion, we impact and influence individual lives for good. The people in need will feel loved and accepted, will have a glimpse of their worth and value, and they will receive some measure of uplifting in time of weariness, feeble knees, and broken heart. One example of this comes from the story Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo, in which the compassion and kindness of a priest and his wife, at significant sacrifice, taught a stranger the true meaning of not only kindness and compassion, but also of integrity, which changed him forever and which created ripples that touched many other lives significantly and for the better.

Third, in a recent mass shooting—the worst-ever in the United States—a scene of terror, death, and suffering was tempered by the courage and the compassion of many common concertgoers as they went about caring for the wounded, saving lives, and comforting others, all while putting their own lives in danger. The message of fear from living in an unpredictable world was overshadowed by the message that the world is yet full of good and decent people who care and who, yes, have a deep desire to lend compassionate service to their fellow brothers and sisters. Remembering these kinds of miracles can give a measure of hope to us all.

Fourth, when we are compassionate to another person, greater than the impact on the needy, the suffering, and the recipient is the impact on us. When we are truly compassionate with others, it changes us for the better. It changes our lives and “our very being” for good. It reflects a glimpse of the truth about who we are, and it helps us become who we might become.

Final Thoughts

May we all learn and grow in our willingness, desire, capacity, and competencies of compassion. As we personally learn to have compassion for others and ourselves, and to accept and embrace the same gift from others, we will be in a better place—the place of teaching from example—for our clients and other loved ones, so that they might experience, accept, and give compassion to themselves and others in their lives. Not only will individual lives be affected directly in the tempering and healing of suffering, but it will be one foundation stone in a well-needed cultural revolution of loving kindness and respect. May we believe in, nurture, and practice compassion, and help others around us do the same—that’s my highest hope. And, as always, may we see the compassion that is there—for there is much already, and much to be grateful for. Why compassion? Because it is our calling. After all, our fellow pilgrims are our brothers and our sisters.

About the author:

Dr. Berrett is CEO, Executive Director, and Co-founder of Center for Change. He has more than 30 years experience working with those suffering from eating disorders. He is co-author of several books and book chapters  including the APA book “Spiritual Approaches in the Treatment of Women with Eating Disorders”, and “Spiritual Renewal: A Journey of Faith and Healing”. He has also co-authored articles in peer review professional clinical  journals. He is a nationally recognized presenter and clinical trainer, and has presented at many national conferences including NEDA, IAEDP, RENFREW, BEDA, IECA, NATSAP, BFI SUMMIT, and others.  Prior to the opening of Center for Change intensive programs in 1994, Dr. Berrett worked in private practice as a psychologist, and at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in adult and adolescent psychiatry. While at UVRMC, he was the program coordinator for a specialty eating disorder program, and he also served there as Chief of Psychology. He has been Clinical Director for Aspen Achievement Academy, a residential wilderness program for adolescents. He has served on the Joint Commission P-TAC Committee, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. Dr. Berrett has been adjunct faculty at Brigham Young University in graduate programs in educational and counseling psychology. He is a certified School Psychologist and School Counselor, working early in his career with adolescents in public education. He received his PhD in Counseling Psychology with a doctoral minor in Marriage and Family Therapy in 1986. He and his wife Karen are the parents of eight wonderful children. Dr. Berrett has dedicated his professional life to helping young people navigate the journey of life with wisdom and peace.


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