The Latin root of the word “compassion” means “to suffer with”. But it doesn’t just involve suffering with someone; it also involves being motivated to act as a result of suffering with someone. This brings out the paradox in exercising compassion: you act out of love for someone else by sharing their pain with them. So compassion isn’t always a joyful feeling—sometimes it’s quite sad. The power in compassion is not in the emotions it brings; rather, it’s in the connections we form with each other.
Spirituality of Compassion
One of the most famous lines from the popular musical Les Misérables is “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Love is inextricably linked to compassion—while you don’t necessarily have to love a person to have compassion for them, when you do love someone, you feel more naturally inclined to show them compassion.
When you have compassion for another person, you see the divine in them. That divinity is what links all of us together. This is spirituality in its simplest form—the belief that all of us are interconnected by a power greater than us. Showing compassion to one another reinforces that spiritual connection. For example, one study concluded that nurses who had higher scores of compassion also provided higher levels of spiritual care for patients.
Think of someone in your life who is a good example of compassion. What is it about this person that tells you they’re compassionate? What acts of compassion have you seen from them? Do they have a unique personality trait that helps them seem more naturally compassionate? Compassion is easy to recognize but hard to develop.For most people, it’s a skill that they must work at throughout their entire lives. In this article, we outline three keys to unlock your compassion:self-compassion, empathy, and giving.
Self-compassionis not necessarily a prerequisite for serving others, but it’s important to understand, because if you do not show compassion to yourself, it’s hard to have genuine compassion for other people. If you volunteer at your local food bank but don’t practice self-compassion, you’re still helping other people with your service. Their lives are improving because of you. However, you’re short-changing your experience by limiting the authentic interactions you have.You make the best connections with others when you’re connected with yourself—which can only happen if you practice self-compassion.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in academic research on self-compassion, has narrowed down self-compassion to having three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
- Self-kindness entails being gentle with yourself when you fall short, treating yourself as you would treat a friend.
- The belief in a common humanity allows you to see that you’re not the only one who fails and makes mistakes—it’s part of being human.
- Mindfulness helps you acknowledge your authentic emotions in a healthy way, neither ignoring them nor exaggerating them.
Each of these is equally important when trying to develop self-compassion. Neff says:
“Most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness.Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.”
Self-compassion is related to self-care, but it is different. Self-care is a practice in which you actively choose to prioritize your health, encompassing things like nutrition, exercise, and hobbies. Self-compassion, on the other hand, involves showing compassion on yourself during times of suffering or when you feel inadequate. So you could say that self-care is a form of self-compassion, but they are not synonymous terms.
Empathy is more directly related to compassion. If you’re going to “suffer with” other people, you need to develop empathy for them in their specific situation. You have to meet them where they are before you can help them. Theresa Wiseman claims that empathy has four defining attributes:
- Seeing things from someone else’s perspective.
- Refraining from judgment.
- Understanding another’s feelings.
- Communicating that understanding.
So, how would you show empathy? Brene Brown has shared, “Rarely can a response make anything better. What makes something better is connection.” This means that when you express empathy, you must draw upon your own experiences to let them know they’re not alone. For instance, you may not have been rejected from medical school like your friend has, but you have experienced the pain of rejection in other ways. A response like “Well, you can always try next year!”may be well-meaning, but it won’t relieve their burdens at that moment. They need to know they have your support, that they aren’t alone, that someone understands.
As another example, say that one of your friends calls you moments after a painful breakup. If you were to show empathy for that friend, you would not start by saying: “At least you still have family and friends that love you.” (The best response wouldn’t even be to insult the ex in an attempt to make your friend feel better, no matter how satisfying it may feel.)Remember that what you say isn’t supposed to magically heal your friend’s pain; what you say is supposed to fuel a connection between the two of you. So to express empathy in this scenario, you’d say something like: “Wow, that sucks. I know how much you loved them. It feels so lonely when relationships end. Thank you for telling me.”
Showing compassion for others often requires that you give something to them. This could be a physical gift, like a monetary donation or a birthday present. But it could also mean giving emotional support, giving a listening ear, or giving compliments. It could also be the gift of your time or your attention—the gift of yourself. When two people are married, a common vow is to “give themselves” to each other.
There’s a reason why religious and spiritual leaders of most denominations and creeds have spoken of the importance of giving. Gautama Buddha said, “If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given.” Jesus Christ said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Zoroaster said, “Do not hold grain waiting for higher prices when people are hungry.” This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea of how important giving is in respect to spiritual wellness: a core part of spirituality is giving to others.
The benefits of giving are plentiful: lower blood pressure, increased self-esteem, less depression, lower stress levels, longer life, and greater happiness and satisfaction. Confucius said: “A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses. If you are generous, you will gain everything.” However, resolving to be more giving just for the benefits it gives may limit your satisfaction. In the Dalai Lama’s words, “You have to start giving first and expect absolutely nothing.” Choosing to give out of a desire to tune into the spirituality that is within all of us, not for a reward (although there are many), will aid you in your quest for an abundant, happy life.
Developing compassion doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice! There are formal ways to practice compassion (e.g., meditation/prayer, journaling exercises, giving to charity) and informal ways to practice compassion (e.g., holding the door open for someone, talking to your grocery clerk, spending time with your family). On the Skylight app, you can find multiple exercises to help you show more compassion for others. One of them is called “Sleeve Problem.” It urges you to imagine a world where everyone’s problems were actually written on their sleeves. What would be on your sleeve? And what if someone who annoys you at work had the same problems written on their sleeve? How would that change your perspective? Would you treat them with more compassion?
This is a helpful exercise because it encourages you to have empathy for others and to see things from their point of view. With this and more (formal) compassion practices, you can be more prepared to give of yourself the next time an (informal)opportunity comes up—maybe you’ll give a few dollars to the homeless woman you see every day, or maybe you’ll feel the need to call your grandparents more often. Whatever it is, you will feel more spiritually connected when you practice compassion.