Updated February 9, 2019
We are living in tough times. Divisiveness is everywhere, and yet there is still a pervasive theme of compassion–strangers helping strangers; communities rallying together. It is comforting for me to know that even in times of darkness, there is still a chance for a glimmer of light to shine through.
Being compassionate is essential to positive functioning in many areas of our lives. Compassion is the ability to be moved to emotion when confronted with the pain or suffering of another. Taking steps to alleviate that discomfort is an essential part of compassion. It’s this motivation to do something that differentiates it from empathy or simply feeling bad for someone’s plight. We need more compassion in our lives—this article will discuss how to develop it and how to avoid compassion fatigue.
How Compassion Can Improve Your Life
The concept of compassion is of such relevance to the positive functioning of individuals and society at large that scientists have begun to research its benefits. They’ve shown that practicing this approach can lead to improved health and better relationships. In fact, compassion can actually have physiological impacts on our bodies. Warm and fuzzy feelings from donating to a charity or helping during times of need lead to decreased heart rate and a stimulation of oxytocin, which is known as “the love hormone” because it facilitates bonding in relationships. In addition, feelings of compassion light up parts of the brain that are related to caregiving and pleasure.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”― Leo Buscaglia
Compassionate people are better at relating in social situations. Developing compassion can positively impact various parts of your life. Acting on behalf of friends and loved ones can increase the bonds between you. Compassionate people tend to have a higher emotional intelligence, making them less prone to the negative effects of feelings like loneliness and fear. On the job, demonstrating compassion leads to an improved and less stressful work environment. Employees are more productive and retention goes up in vocational settings that demonstrate value for compassion.
Ways to Become More Compassionate
We aren’t born with a certain level of compassionate. It can be strengthened through practice and intention. Being intentional in our approach to others can go a long way toward leading us to act on their behalf. When you hear about an issue that is negatively affecting a population to which you don’t belong, take time to imagine how you handle a similar situation. Read articles from the viewpoint of a person who belongs to that group and try to avoid making any judgments while doing so. Simply focus on what the author is relaying. Find photographs and inspect the faces of the people who are undergoing this situation. By viewing their facial expressions or considering ways in which you may be alike, you will likely feel more compassion for the issue as a whole. Personal accounts and visual elements make the plight of others seem less abstract, promoting understanding and promoting desire to help.
Take time to recognize and accept your own negative emotions in relation to the negative emotions or situations of others. Sometimes we can be quick to become defensive or avoidant when faced with the negative reaction of others to a situation that is personally affecting them. When we see a friend in pain due to a health condition, we may feel discomfort at not being able to make things better. Feelings of helplessness frequently lead to avoidance. Instead of abandoning your friend, take time to recognize your own discomfort and its origins. It’s okay to admit that you feel fearful or helpless, even that you’re thankful no one in your family is faced with this health problem. Moving forward in a compassionate manner requires you to recognize and put aside your feelings in order to compassionately be there for others. Also, be mindful to avoid blame if you truly want to feel compassion. When you find yourself criticizing the actions of those experiencing a difficult situation, take a deep breath and try to employ empathy instead. Imagine how you would handle such a scenario and the ways you might feel.
Avoid Compassion Fatigue
You may not be aware of the term, but you’ve likely felt its effects. Compassion fatigue is the stress response that comes from working to care for or take actions on behalf of others. In my career field of healthcare, home caregivers, social workers, mental health providers, and physicians are at risk for compassion fatigue. It’s kind of like burnout except that it doesn’t happen after long periods of compassionate action. This type of response is felt more suddenly. Symptoms can include increased levels of stress and irritability that can make it difficult for you to handle your daily responsibilities. You may feel bored or even traumatized. Physical symptoms of body aches can develop.
“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.” ― Andrew Boy
Living a compassionate life makes you emotionally attuned to the suffering of another and it moves you to take the steps to alleviate that discomfort.
Call to Action: When working tireless on behalf of a cause or individual, you absolutely must invest time in your own self-care. Be sure you are physically healthy by seeing your doctor. Take time to eat well, rather than just grabbing something on the go. Be physically active. Taking a walk or exercising does wonders for your mental outlook and gives you the strength to continue giving of yourself. Have fun and don’t neglect your personal interests. Most of all, be sure to rely on your social network for support when needed.