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compassion nurse virtue

Compassion: A nurse’s primary virtue

By: Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN

Strengthening compassion may help you avoid burnout.

Nurses, we’re told, are fundamentally compassionate people. In fact, nurse burnout could be defined as the loss of compassion. So, it behooves us as nurses to explore what compassion is, how it differs from empathy and sympathy, and how to enhance it.

Compassion, empathy, and sympathy

compassion nurse virtue postThe etymology of compassion is Latin, and it means “co-suffering.” It involves feeling for another, and it’s considered a precursor to empathy, which is feeling what another feels. When you empathize, you share the suffering of another—an emotion that’s not especially helpful for nurses.

In nursing, compassion is active; our education and experience have provided us with the ability to relieve another’s suffering. It often confers the capacity for person-centered acts that relieve suffering. The difference between sympathy and compassion is that sympathy responds to suffering with sorrow and concern while compassion responds with warmth and care.

Compassion is more than a desire to alleviate another’s suffering, it involves the ability and the will to do so. Compassion can be broken down into four interrelated stages:

  • recognizing that there is suffering (cognitive)
  • being emotionally moved by that suffering (affective)
  • wanting to relieve that suffering (intentional)
  • having the ability and willingness to take action to relieve that suffering (motivational).

In short, compassion isn’t defined by what you feel for another but what you do about what you feel. Moreover, an act of compassion is defined by its helpfulness. That is, the efficacy of compassion can be defined by whether the action taken is of service or assistance to the one who’s suffering. Being of service or assistance doesn’t necessarily involve making things easier for the sufferer or even necessarily relieving his or her pain. It depends on the cause of the suffering, the person’s response to the suffering, and the personality of the sufferer. That’s why a compassionate nursing response is always person-centric.

Strengthen your compassion

Contrary to what many may believe, compassion is more like a muscle than an emotion; thus, as with any muscle, it can be strengthened with relevant exercises—or can deteriorate and atrophy. In other words, your capacity for compassion can expand, if you choose. Preliminary research from a variety of randomized controlled trials suggests that compassion can be enhanced through systematic training programs. For example:

  • Meditate daily, even if only for a few minutes.
  • Notice when compassion comes easily or spontaneously for you throughout the day.
  • Start noticing suffering (your own and that of others) and allow yourself to be emotionally touched or moved by the suffering. Awareness of the presence or absence of compassion can provide you with some valuable information.
  • To foster resilience, think about a hurtful event in a different way.
  • Be compassionate toward yourself. No empirical evidence exists to suggest that beating ourselves up changes our behavior.

Compassion, which is ranked as a great virtue in numerous philosophies and almost all major religious traditions, certainly is a virtue for all nurses—ranking in importance right next to knowledge and experience!

leah curtin registered nurse faan





Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN
Executive Editor, Professional Outreach

Selected references

Jimenez S. Compassion. The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology, Vol. I. Lopez SJ, ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell; 2009.

Reddy NK, Ajmera S. Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude: For Civil Services Main Examination. McGraw-Hill Education. p. 146.




  • Cynthia Saver
    May 11, 2020 8:12 am

    Thank you for your kind words, Mr. Fortin. I will share them with the author. Take care,
    Cynthia Saver, MS, RN, editorial director, American Nurse Journal

  • Chris Fortin
    May 10, 2020 1:41 pm

    I am more than very happy to say that I have met numerous medical professionals genuinely praise-worthy of immense compassion and empathy above the norm of protocol and professionalism.

    The majority of these medical professionals in my personal ailing health experience are female nurses who have respectfully helped calm the worst of many patients fears and suffering including myself a patient suffering with the fears and worries of terminal bladder cancer and amongst the past affliction of being a heterosexual male who has suffered the physical and mental illnesses of a sadistic and torturous gang-rape at gunpoint.

    Many of nurses have helped me in their gentle reassuring presence as though nothing to strongly fuss over in compassionate moments of sincerity, trust, and charity.

    For that I am so truly thankful. It’s rewarding to see medical professional nurses, who genuinely care about their “individual patients”, who are suffering from a plethora of various illnesses. And these nurses have shown that they do honestly care, not just by their kind, encouraging, compassionate words and gestures, but the genuine actions of their innermost heart. This is truly heartwarming to personally witness and experience.

    It has always been an honor and privilege for me, to meet professional nurses of this caliber. It makes the speediness of healing from many illnesses, including those of us who are forced to endure terminal illnesses which helps to change ones attitude towards it, making its outcome seem more promising despite compromising situations. I just want to say a heartfelt genuine thank you, to all these exceedingly special nurses for being caring motivators of healing and embolden figures of inspiring hope in a world caught up in misery and genuine human suffering.

    My Heartfelt sincere appreciation goes to you Nurses; for being the best you can be, for being the true brave Hero’s on the frontline fighting this ravaging global pandemic illness Covid-19. But most of all my kindhearted thank you goes out to you for extolling your gratifying compassionate hearts upon your individual patients. Please realize beyond doubt; even in your most grueling moments that you’re always admiringly remembered even in the smallest genuine tasks you offer to your patients. P.S. A genuinely kind and truly sincere thank you to you all. Thank You for being there. You mean so; so, very much.
    Love & Appreciation
    Your; patient.

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