Compassion is defined as empathy in action. Empathy is when we understand the feelings of another, when we can stand in their shoes. We have to have empathy before we find compassion. Once we feel stirred by empathy, we tend to look for ways to help; that’s our compassion kicking into action.
The pandemic has certainly elicited compassion and love in all of us. We’ve seen tear-jerking stories of families doing silly dances outside their elderly loved one’s window at a retirement home. We’ve watched multiple news clips of first responders erupting in applause as another COVID survivor is wheeled out of the hospital. We’ve seen drive-thru graduations at thousands of high schools, stacks of pizza boxes delivered anonymously to ERs, socially distanced-parking lot-hang outs among teens desperate to connect with their peers.
Perhaps now, more than ever, we are a nation moved by compassion. I can only think of one other time in my adult life where I felt this same, universal stir of kindness, love, and support. That was on 9/11 and the days and weeks following 9/11. We are rounding the bend on an entire year of this type of vulnerability and shared loss.
I would argue that we are raw as a nation. When we feel like this, we tend to emote more openly and more frequently. We let our guard down. Our masks come off because we are exhausted and some of us are hanging on by a thread. Job disruptions, milestones missed, isolation, and frustration leave many of us depleted. Our willingness to share openly about these hardships is what can drive compassion right now.
See what happens in your circle of friends if you take the risk of opening up about some of the losses you’ve endured in the past year. Once you lead the way, you will find others are relieved to share stories in the same way. It’s in this kind of open sharing that bonds are strengthened.
Psychologist and author Lisa D’amour reminds in a 1/29/21 NY Times article:
“Compassion won’t alter the lousy circumstances, but it can still help to relieve...emotional suffering. Feeling alone with psychological pain is a lot worse than believing that your distress is seen and validated.”
I’m sure you’ve seen the same research I’ve read over and over about what happens to our own levels of happiness when we choose to help others. There’s actually no other choice we can make that leads to greater, more immediate feelings of heightened self-worth and contentment. Little, tiny acts of service is how I like to think of these decisions. When we perceive them as small, they feel more readily available.
Some examples of tiny acts of service include the following:
- Noticing someone’s beautifully painted nails as she hands you a coffee at Starbucks and taking the time to comment on her handiwork.
- Seeing an unusually bright smile on the person checking out your groceries and complimenting that person on his or her smile.
- Realizing that one of your children seems happy at school, (despite all the disruptions, masks, and social distancing) and emailing their teacher a quick note of thanks for managing all of this so gracefully.
- Appreciating that every time you walk into the dry cleaners, the same guy greets you with kindness, and deciding to bring him a coffee or a donut the next time you pop into his store.
Run this experiment with me. Engage in 1-2 of these tiny acts of service each day and then take a moment to see if you feel any different by the end of the day. Perhaps you’ll feel a bit energized, uplifted, or simply more positive. That’s because a moment of standing in someone else’s shoes (empathy) drove you to a small act of kindness (compassion). Once you get into this routine, it becomes so satisfying that you might want to increase the number of tiny acts of service.
We can have compassion towards others, but it’s also a good idea to find compassion toward ourselves, as well. This can be a bit trickier because our culture tends to feel confused about self-love and self-care. These are often seen as acts of indulgence, indicators of being “soft” or weak. Yet when we interview the most successful adults out there, they tend to be the ones who take the absolute best care of their brain and body. They know when to be compassionate towards themselves.
The easiest step toward being more compassionate toward ourselves is to ask ourselves this question: “How would I comfort a dear friend right now?” We would never speak to a close friend with the same harsh tone we use on ourselves. Practice turning that nurturing, comforting voice inward. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but keep trying.
I often suggest to my clients that they ask themselves: “How would I like to have been parented in a delicate moment like this? What words would have comforted me?” Now parent yourself. Use the empathy and compassion we often find effortlessly for others and turn it inwards for a moment.
Think of compassion as a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more buffed out it becomes. Giving it a good workout will energize you. We humans are built for connection and compassion.
By Cristina Young, LCSW, parent educator, and licensed therapist with more than 25 years of experience providing professional support to children, adolescents, adults, and families.