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How can we build our capacity for compassion?

According to The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Emotion researchers define it as 'the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering'.

So how will building our compassion muscle help us, and how do we do it?

Scientists now suggest that compassion is essential to our survival, not just our emotional wellbeing, with research showing that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down and feel good hormones like oxytocin flow through our system and regions of the brain linked to empathy and caregiving light up and we want to do something to help. Compassion also helps us to connect with and cooperate more effectively with others, and it appears that the world needs us to be more willing to work together maybe now more than ever before.

According to Dr. Rick Hanson, expert on positive neuroplasticity and acclaimed psychologist and author, compassion is one of the key 12 inner strengths we can cultivate that will support us to develop unshakable resilience, and compassion is the first strength he talks about in the book of the same name. Building resilience starts with building our inner strength for compassion for self and moves through a range of other strengths that build our capacity for generosity.

Are Compassion and Empathy the same thing?

While compassion and empathy are related, they are not the same thing. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help or take ACTION. And we know that helping other people is very good for us, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

So compassion is good for us and good for others. Is there a catch?

With all the constant connection we have in this current world we live in, all the sorrows we can witness on any given day in the media both overseas and in our own backyards, compassionate and empathetic people can find themselves feeling overwhelmed or burdened with the weight of it all. And this can lead us to choose to turn off our compassion, or experiencing compassion fatigue.

So how can we build our capacity for compassion without depleting or hurting ourselves in the process?

These ideas might help:

Believe that however small your ability to help, your compassion WILL make a difference.

Sometimes when suffering is on a large scale, we can turn off our compassion, thinking 'how can I possibly make a difference in such an overwhelming situation?' The truth is every little bit really does help, and it helps us feel like we have been able to take positive action toward solving an issue we care about, and that is good for everyone involved. You might just sign a petition or share some information. It doesn't have to involve money or much of your time.

Keep your boundaries and balance in the face of large or confronting events.

When large scale tragedies occur, or incredibly intense or tragic events take place, it can seem overwhelming and sometimes all consuming. We can be tempted to keep watching the live drama unfold on TV which is exactly what the media wants us to do. If you feel like you want to help, do what you can, feel good about it, then turn off the TV and focus on something else. It will not help you to immerse yourself in an event that you have limited capacity to make a difference with. Turn your compassion to those closest to you.

Show compassion to self THEN others.

Many people end up doing and caring so much for others that they do so at the expense of their own basic needs or resources, and this can cause exhaustion or at least have us feeling hurt or resentful. You can only show true compassion for others if you can show it to yourself. This can be really powerful with those in our lives we are closest to. Sometimes instead of feeling compassion for our loved one who might be experiencing a tough situation, we might feel annoyed, or competitive with them, or feel like their suffering is directed toward us in some way. If we allow ourselves self-compassion in this situation, become aware of our emotional needs and acknowledge our own suffering, then we can choose to place our focus away from ourselves to be able to imagine how others see things and we can accept them for exactly where they are at. That's when we can truly offer compassion and a desire to help.

Say a few powerful words.

Sometimes when wanting to show compassion for others we think we can see what could support them and how they could move forward. This is helpful if we are asked for our ideas or opinions, but if we put forward our ideas, especially as 'you should' statements, this person will not feel cared for one bit. If we are asked, we could suggest 'Maybe you could.....' or 'Maybe I would.....', otherwise the most powerful words we could choose are 'How can I help you'? or 'What can I do to help?' This approach will allow the person to articulate what they might need and it will help them feel empowered and heard, which is all we need sometimes to start feeling better.

Practice and repetition.

Like every skill we every want to develop or any muscle we want to build in any area of life, we only become competent through repetition and practice. It is the same when we want to build our capacity for compassion, gratitude, kindness, empathy, love and trust.

As we build our self awareness we can look at situations where we are feeling compassion and notice it, feel how it feels and enjoy it, or we can look at situations where we think we are lacking or might have lacked compassion and consider how we could add it to the situation and how that might help us and others to feel good.

Here's to more compassion in the world and to the young children in our lives learning how.

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion" Dalai Lama

Until next time,

The PLS team



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