Three steps to compassion; reinventing the Serenity Prayer


This blog will explore what we mean by compassion, and see how it might be applied to the well known ‘serenity prayer’. By understanding compassion in this way we can start to see that compassion isn’t one emotion or thought, but we will be able to see the different attributes that make up compassion.


Defining compassion

Despite it forming part of the Buddhist teachings, the West is only now starting to make sense of what it means to show compassion. It is not the intention of this blog to discuss the varied research on compassion, but to offer one view of what it might mean. The following definition, for me, sums up compassion. Developed by Paul Gilbert (2017) he defines compassion as:


a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try and alleviate and prevent it“.


You can see that compassion in this definition isn’t a passive emotion but is made up of being aware of and feeling empathy towards suffering, and critically includes a call to arms to take action. This is different to empathy alone, as empathy is feeling someone’s pain but not acting. (We can also consider other similar feelings. Sympathy is more akin to noticing suffering but feeling helpless to do anything, and pity is recognising another’s suffering and feeling a sense of superiority over them. These then are passive and do not create human connections.)


Feeling compassion

Take a look at the image of the dog at the top of this blog. What do you see? Sadness? What do you feel? Pain? Sorrow? Welling of tears? That’s empathy. This is the foundation of compassion. If you also feel the urge to protect the dog, take it out of its suffering, then that’s compassion.


Expanding our understanding of compassion

Although I have described compassion above in simple terms, in reality compassion is a complex construct, and that is why there is so much research right now, trying to understand what is really going on emotionally, cognitively, biologically etc. Not just to know what compassion is, but to know what can block or increase compassion.

For instance, research tells us that emotions play a big part in compassion. If we do not regulate our emotions they can overwhelm us and stop us from thinking clearly. Then we might turn away from suffering as we cannot cope with it. We also know that it takes courage to take action sometimes. Think of activists who care for a cause and are compelled to put themselves in danger. This then leads to the need for some wisdom; the consideration of consequences to any action. It’s no good rushing to help someone only to make things much worse. Compassion therefore appears to need our thoughts, feelings and judgement.


Explaining compassion using the Serenity Prayer

Whether you have a faith or not, the Serenity Prayer has been a comforting source of inspiration for many years. Written by Reinhold Niebuhr, much of our therapies reflect these sage principles. In this blog I am suggesting that many findings within the research into compassion can be explained using the Serenity Prayer. We could even rename the Prayer the ‘Three steps to compassion’. Here’s why:



This is the emotional regulation we need, to be able to see the situation clearly without over-identifying with the emotions we are feeling. This is acceptance of what has occurred, or what we are witnessing without finding it overwhelming.



Courage in the prayer is our strength of taking action, however uncomfortable or scary. For compassion this could be taking action to relieve others of their suffering, even when it makes us vulnerable too. We have to put ourselves out to help others, especially in times of distress, and so courage is critical to being able to alleviate suffering.



Wisdom in the prayer is about knowing when to act and when to accept the situation. With compassion this means taking a step back and considering how best to make a positive impact. It may be best to temporarily do nothing, just be there for someone else or take bold action. Knowing which is best means we can alleviate the suffering far more effectively.


So next time you feel empathy, notice if you are driven to act or not, and how strong your courage and wisdom is shining though. We all need to turn our empathy and sympathy into compassion to allow us to make our world a better place.


About the author: Lisa Jones has a professional background in human resource leadership and employment law. She is currently studying for the MAPP at Buckinghamshire New University where she intends to combine her HR expertise with positive psychology to work with organisations and community groups to generate increased psychological well-being.


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