How to Be More Compassionate

Bedtime used to by my least favorite time of day, particularly when my oldest daughter was three and a half. She had just started preschool for the first time and was in the process of giving up her nap. She was exhausted and out-of-sorts and every night, trying to get her in her jammies and settled in bed was like the greased pig event at a rodeo.

I was really not happy about this for many reasons: concern for her, not knowing what to do differently, feeling trapped in a never-ending battle. And, I was starting to suspect that she was enjoying torturing me; after all, I couldn’t go downstairs and veg out on the couch until she was down.

One night, I was on my knees, holding her jammies and chasing her around the room in an attempt to convince her to put them on. She kept going back in to her closet to select another jammie outfit (this child is obsessed with clothes). At some point, I’d had it. I flopped forward and actually banged my forehead on the floor in exasperation. Once I got there, however, I realized I was in a kind of child’s pose. It felt good. I let her do her thing and I stayed there, breathing.

After several breaths, I sat back up. And all of a sudden I could see it so clearly—she wasn’t trying to make me miserable. She just wanted some extra attention. I could feel my heart melt a little when I looked at her, and I gave her a hug. The whole energy in the room shifted, and she got her PJs on and hopped in bed.

That shift in dynamic lasted for months.

The emotion I experienced in that moment was compassion – which is defined as the desire to reduce another’s suffering. It requires empathy – which is the ability to identify and imagine another’s experience – but it goes one step beyond because of the desire to help. Humans are compassionate beings by nature, although it can be hard to access in the midst of daily life. The good news is, compassion is like a muscle—you can strengthen it with practice. Here then are three of the best ways I know to do just that:

  • Slow down. Compassion requires you to soften; being able to entertain another’s point of view requires a willingness. And it’s really hard to be open when you’re trying to motor through your to-do list. It doesn’t take long—in my story above, I probably spent about a minute in child’s pose. But that minute made all the difference.
  • Take yourself out of the equation. If someone is bugging you, assume that their behavior has nothing to do with you. In other words, don’t take things personally. The person who is driving at a snail’s pace in front of you when you’re late to work isn’t trying to torture you. Neither is your husband when he doesn’t pick up his socks. They’re off in their own little world. So if it’s not about you, you get the chance to wonder why they might be acting that way—and this is key. Wondering about someone else’s experience allows you to connect with them.
  • Try a compassion meditation. This simple technique allows you exercise your compassion muscles. It’s also a great way to support someone you love who’s going through something (basically, it’s like praying for them). Sitting quietly with eyes closed, rest your thoughts on the sound of your breath for a minute or two until you feel more relaxed. Then, call up an image of a particular person’s face. As you gaze on them with your internal eye, say silently: May she be healthy. May she be happy. May she find peace. Repeat these sayings for a minute or two. This is a lovely way to support someone you love who’s going through a tough time. It’s also a great way to feel connected to someone who’s bugging you right now. But perhaps the most important person to do this for, is yourself. Because if you can’t feel compassion for yourself, your ability to do it for others is going to be limited.

I hope these techniques help you feel more connected to others. And if you have another tip for being more compassionate, please leave it in the comments. I’d love to hear it, and sharing is caring!