“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama
You have most certainly heard of empathy and compassion, but have you ever thought about why you might want to enhance yours? Did you even know that you can work on and improve your ability to be empathetic and compassionate? Before getting into how and why to do it, let’s back up and define exactly what it is.
Empathy is seeing, recognizing, and valuing someone else’s feelings. It’s the gateway to compassion.
Compassion is being moved by your empathy to do something to help.
The big difference between empathy and compassion is how they impact your well-being. If you often feel another’s pain but can’t, or do not, do anything about it, you can get emotional overload and end up with burnout. When you feel empathy towards someone and demonstrate compassion by doing something to reduce their pain, you are less likely to feel overwhelmed, less likely to burn out, and instead you feel the positive emotional benefits of helping others.
Compassionate people benefit from decreased anxiety and depression, increased social connectedness, strengthened friendships and family cohesion. This is the amazing thing about increasing your empathy and compassion - you get to experience the benefits in addition to the person you are helping!
Now, for more good news, there are two fabulously easy things you can do, that cost you nothing and take little effort, that will increase your empathy and compassion: Being a good listener and practicing kindness.
It’s often said that empathy is when you can see the world through the other person’s eyes, or “walk in their shoes”. It turns out that we as humans are pretty bad at that. We end up relying on our own feelings, leaning on stereotypes, and making assumptions. A better approach is to simply ask others how they see things or how they are feeling, and then listen.
Imagine someone is going through a difficult time. Your role as a good listener starts with the questions you ask.
Could you tell me more about that?
How are you feeling?
Would you be willing to share your experience with me?
It sounds like you have a lot going on, would you care to share?
We do much better at understanding others and becoming more empathetic when we don’t guess. If instead we focus on helping others feel comfortable being open and honest with us, then we can truly understand them and are in a much better position to help.
When we purposefully try to practice kindness, and do things for the benefit of someone else, we automatically take our focus off ourselves and become more aware of the needs of others. We think about who needs a helping hand and then do what we can to provide it.
Kindness includes everything from making quilts for a hospice organization, to donating to a charity, to calling a friend and checking in on them. Even something so simple as being extra considerate of others can be an act of kindness. Sometimes we may be quick to criticize others without making the effort to understand how their situation and experiences influence their choices. This is where empathy comes back in. Try to remember that everyone copes differently, were brought up in their own unique circumstances, and learned how things work best for them. They may also be under stresses you don’t know about and may act differently than normal.
Sometimes, when you are feeling stressed out yourself, it can be really difficult to think of others. Under tense conditions, start practicing compassion with yourself. Self-compassion is a very powerful gift to yourself. It is self-kindness vs self-judgement. Giving yourself a break, as you would a good friend, is a great way to practice kindness.
Putting effort forth to be more empathetic and more compassionate benefits everyone. Being a great listener and practicing kindness helps us increase our personal value and sense of community.