Compassion is among the personality traits that we most value in others, both in our personal and professional relationships. Despite this, we often fail to truly appreciate how important being compassionate is for us, especially when it comes to self-compassion.
The truth is, the benefits of feeling and showing compassion may surprise you.
Whether you already consider yourself to be compassionate towards yourself and others or not, the good news is that we can cultivate our compassionate skills and get better at it.
I know that I’ve become kinder and more understanding in recent years since I started working on becoming more compassionate. I am more forgiving of myself instead of beating myself up for perceived failures all the time.
What is compassion?
The word compassion comes from the Latin compassio, meaning to share suffering with someone else. For emotion researchers, however, it’s less dramatic than that: compassion is defined as the emotional response we have when faced with someone else’s suffering and feel motivated to help them. Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh said that “Compassion is a verb” and, in fact, compassion is strongly connected to the desire to do something in order to help others.
Over the years, several studies (like this one from Birnie et al., 2010), have shown that being compassionate comes with an array of highly beneficial side effects. In other words, the more you do for others, the more you do for yourself.
Why compassion is good for us
Several studies over the years (this one from Seppala et al., 2013, is one such example) have shown that compassion has a very real positive effect on both our physical and mental health.
When we feel compassion our heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels go down, making us feel less stressed. At the same time, our levels of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine go up, lightning up the pleasure/reward centers in our brain and improving our general wellbeing, satisfaction and mood, while also increasing our sense of belonging.
By improving our connection with those around us we feel less lonely but also create a sort of ripple effect which will improve our relationships as a whole.There’s a good chance our behaviour will encourage others to also be more compassionate too. Simply put, helping others and being compassionate towards them makes us feel good.
Compassion, empathy, and altruism
But what about concepts like altruism and empathy? Are they the same as compassion? No, although they can be considered neighbouring concepts, and are important in their own right.
Empathy is when we are aware of the other person’s emotions and try to understand their feelings – it’s having the capacity to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. You need to be able to experience empathy for others in order to feel compassion.
Both compassion and empathy clear the path for kind and loving attitudes, which are the stepping stones of healthy relationships.
Altruism can be defined as a noble behaviour often motivated by compassion, although that is not always necessarily the case. Altruism implies that our actions are driven by our desire to help others simply because we care for their wellbeing.
How can you be more compassionate?
There are many steps we can take towards being more compassionate and they don’t have to involve grand gestures or a complete change of behaviour.
Here are a few examples:
- Be grateful. By feeling grateful for what we have we’re more likely to have compassion for those who are less fortunate than us.
- Practice being altruistic. Actively helping others, through voluntary or community work, for example, will help us be more compassionate. Besides, we’ll also be boosting our self-esteem and the happiness of the people we’re helping.
- Try not to judge. You probably don’t know all the details behind someone else’s difficulties and you can’t tell for sure how you would do if you were going through the same. Focusing on what we do have in common makes it easier for us to act with compassion.
- Don’t leave yourself out of the compassion equation. Very often we are capable of feeling compassion towards our fellow humans but find it difficult to extend that kindness to ourselves. The truth, however, is that it pays to do so; being self-compassionate makes it easier to overcome difficult situations in our lives and to stay motivated when things don’t go exactly as planned.
- Practice lovingkindess meditation regularly, starting with yourself then sending love and good wishes to the rest of the world, including challenging people. You’ll find more information about how to do this in my article about different ways to meditate.
- Remember that “hurt people hurt people” when you’re having trouble sending good wishes to someone who has done ‘bad’ things.
The importance of self-compassion
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” (Dalai Lama)
For many of us, it can be fairly easy to feel compassion towards others (sometimes even complete strangers). But nurturing those same feelings for ourselves? That can be a difficult task!
If a friend or loved one is going through a difficult time in their lives, even if they somehow brought it upon themselves, we’re likely to feel compassion and offer help. When we go through that same situation ourselves, however, we tend to criticize ourselves and use words we would never use towards another.
It’s not difficult to realise that this attitude only adds more stress to our already probably very stressed minds and bodies. By criticizing ourselves we’re activating our threat-defense system, assuming the role of both the attacker and the attacked.
When we are self-compassionate, we deactivate that threat-defense system and activate the care system instead, making us feel less stressed, more secure, and safer.
Self-compassion may seem for many like just a form of self-pity, but it’s quite the opposite. Instead of adopting an attitude of defeat, self-compassion helps us put things into perspective by acknowledging the fact that we’re all just imperfect humans trying to do the best we can, with the knowledge, beliefs and resources we have, and not always succeeding.
As mentioned in this article, celebrating small wins is far more beneficial and motivating than berating ourselves for not achieving our idea of perfection.
Imagine you’re on a weight loss journey but ate a cream cake and a pizza one day. Instead of labelling yourself as a failure and berating yourself, be kind, acknowledge what happened and why, so that you can learn from the experience, then resume your healthy eating plan.
Research has shown that those of us who practice self-compassion tend to benefit from improved relationships and health, increased motivation, resilience and happiness, while also having lower levels of stress and depression (see, for example, this study from Neff et al., 2007).
How do you show compassion to yourself?
Contrary to what some people might think, self-compassion is not synonymous with self-indulgence. Being self-compassionate when it comes to your physical health, for example, implies things like choosing a balanced meal, exercising, and going to bed early.
If you’re looking for real, tangible ways to practice self-compassion, take a look at these ideas:
- Talk to yourself like you would to a friend. Imagine that it is a friend that is going through hard times: think of what you would say and then speak to yourself in the same way.
- Or a dog! I saw a meme on Facebook that I loved, which goes like this: “New approach to self-care: Talk to myself the same way I talk to dogs… “Hey sweet girl!” “Look at that beautiful belly!” “You’re so clever.” “Want a treat?””
- Take care of your body. Do a little self massage on your feet or neck, for example. Take a nap if that’s what your body is crying out for. Get outside in the fresh air and go for a walk in nature when you feel overwhelmed. Treat your body to a healthy snack instead of a chocolate bar. The focus here is on increasing your physical wellbeing.
- Engage in mindfulness. Become aware of your feelings, thoughts, and actions. Acknowledge their existence and accept them, without trying to suppress them.
- Write it down. Pick a situation that brought you pain and journal on what happened and how you felt. Don’t blame others while you’re writing down your description. This will allow you to recognise and face your own feelings. More tips on how to journal in this article.
Being compassionate brings with it many benefits for both our lives and the lives of those around us.
Although it may not always be easy to show compassion towards another, and perhaps even more challenging towards ourselves, the truth is it can be done every day and in every interaction with simple, mindful attitudes.
Or, as the Dalai Lama put it, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”