Compassion and kindness make the world a better place, but showing compassion can be tricky and draining. How can you show that you care without making it awkward?
The best way to show compassion is by being open and active, while also respecting boundaries and privacy. You can always offer to lend a helping hand or an attentive ear, but it’s up to others to take you up on your offer - don’t push it if they don’t. While compassion is often related to comforting someone who’s hurt, you don’t have to wait for something to happen to show compassion: little acts of kindness can be the most compassionate thing you can do.
In this article I’ll take a look at what compassion is, can there be such a thing as too much compassion, and most importantly, 4 ways to show compassion.
The different kinds of compassion
If you’ve ever comforted a grieving friend or a crying child, or tried to cheer up a stressed coworker, you’ve shown compassion. Simply feeling for the victims of a tragedy or the overworked frontline workers during the Covid pandemic is also a form of compassion.
When we talk about compassion, we often call it empathy, and on the surface, these two concepts are quite similar. However, they do have their differences. Empathy makes us feel what others are feeling: grief with our grieving friend, shock with the victim of a tragedy.
A 2014 article posits that in contrast to empathy, compassion is not about sharing the suffering of others, but is instead characterized by feelings of warmth, concern, and care for others, as well as a strong motivation to improve others’ wellbeing.
In other words, compassion is feeling for and not feeling with others.
Not all compassion is created equal. Firstly, we are more likely to feel compassionate towards people who are similar to us. Secondly, there are different types of compassion.
Paul Ekman, one of the leading researchers of emotions, differentiates between proximal and distal compassion. Proximal compassion is what we feel when we see someone in need and we help them. Distal compassion is about anticipating and trying to prevent harm before it occurs, for example, when we tell a loved one to wear a helmet or put on their seatbelt.
Too much compassion can tire you out
One of the questions I get asked most often is, “Isn’t it difficult and depressing to listen to other people’s troubles all day?”
The answer, of course, is that it is difficult and occasionally depressing. But this is my job and I know what I signed up for. Even so, I am not immune to compassion fatigue, which is common and well-researched among different helping professions, including therapists, nurses, first responders, teachers, and social workers.
How to deal with compassion fatigue
Compassion fatigue occurs when our ability to feel compassion for others is diminished as a result of mental (and physical) exhaustion.
While initially linked to only helping professions, compassion fatigue and similar concepts like secondary traumatic stress are increasingly widespread among other members of society. Stories of tragedy and suffering often dominate the news, which can lead to compassion fatigue.
For example, I stopped reading the daily reports of the number of Covid cases early on during the pandemic, because I knew that seeing the ever-growing numbers would test the limits of my compassion.
Similarly, I don’t like or follow the pages of animal charities on social media, as teary posts of kittens in need of urgent care tug on my heartstrings a little too hard.
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How to show compassion
Being too compassionate can have its drawbacks, but generally, extending compassion to people around us helps to make the world a better place.
If you’ve ever tried to comfort a crying person, you probably know that while feeling compassion is easy, showing it can be awkward. It can feel too personal in professional settings and useless in personal settings.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, here are 4 simple ways to show compassion that also serve as the general pillars to showing that you care. You can use them as a starting point and customize your compassion to different situations and contexts.
1. Touch only if it’s welcome
When we talk about compassion, the first thing that comes to mind is the awkward “there-there” pat on the shoulder.
While physical touch is a wonderful tool for creating a connection and showing someone that they’re not alone, it’s important that the person feels comfortable with it.
Always ask before making physical contact, no matter if it’s a hug or just a hand on the shoulder. If the person is fine with it, go ahead! Holding their hand, rubbing their back or shoulders gently, patting their head or a simple hug might be the only thing you need to do.
However, if the person doesn’t want to be touched, try something else instead.
2. Listen actively
Giving someone your full and undivided attention can sometimes be the most compassionate thing you can do. Active listening starts by removing distractions (if possible). Try to face the other person and keep your body language open.
Don’t interrupt or try to offer advice (unless the person asks for it) and simply focus on listening without judgment.
Show that you’re listening by nodding, asking appropriate questions, and using verbal tags like “uh-uh” or “right”.
Where appropriate, paraphrase and reflect on what you’re hearing to show that you’re picking up what the other person is putting down.
3. Practice acts of kindness
You don’t have to wait for something to happen to show compassion. Offer to babysit for a friend or pick up a coffee for a coworker to bring more kindness and compassion into your life, or simply pay mindful compliments to the people in your life.
I used to keep this set of positive affirmation cards at work and I would let my students and coworkers choose an affirmation after each counseling session or talk. Once, I happened to have the set with me at a dinner with friends and the affirmations turned out to be a hit with them as well.
Now, I carry some around with me in my planner, so that I always have some to hand out wherever I go. It turns out that a positive message can be all that you need to turn someone’s day around.
4. Respect boundaries
Sometimes, people don’t want to accept your hug or your sincere offer to help. In such cases, the most compassionate thing you can do is to respect their decision and not push. The fact that you offered to lend an attentive ear or a helping hand is enough to show that you care, but it’s up to the other person to accept the offer.
Unless you have a reason to believe that the person is a danger to themself or others, don’t try to send others to help them, either. If they’ve confided in you, keep their secret and don’t discuss their worries with others. They’ll come to you if and when they’re ready.
Similarly, if someone asks you not to bring up a certain topic or not to use certain words, respect their wishes. My friends and I like to affectionately tease each other, but we all have specific names we don’t want to be called and we respect that.
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You don’t need to make grand gestures to show compassion. Simply listening actively and attentively, offering a hug, or paying a mindful compliment is enough to show that you care. Most importantly, you can show compassion by respecting boundaries - don’t take it personally if your sincere offer is rebuffed. Not pushing or forcing help on someone can be the simplest and most compassionate thing you can do.
Now I want to hear from you. Do you find it difficult or awkward to show compassion to your loved ones? What's a recent example of compassion that you experienced lately? Let me know in the comments!