Compassion: Are You Born with It?

I have always viewed myself as a rather compassionate person. I try to be kind to others, express empathy, demonstrate genuine concern, and help others in need. In fact, I began my career in speaking to share my message with others in hopes of offering inspiration, support and real connection. However, have you ever paused and reflected on acts that were anything but compassionate? 

As human beings, we each have some standard needs—like food, shelter, and love to survive. We all crave attention, recognition, affection and happiness—to some degree, at least. But what about compassion? Do we need it and are we all equipped to give it?

Recently, I’ve began thinking more about compassion. I wondered if it was a trait that’s innate or one that can be developed. According to research, compassion is something that can be strengthened through targeted exercises and practice, and isn’t something you’re born with. If you’re interested in cultivating compassion, here are a few strategies worth trying:

Encourage cooperation, not competition. Imagine three things you want most in life. Find a partner and get in an arm wrestling position. Every time you are able to successfully pin the other’s arm onto the surface, you win one of those three things you want most. GO! So were you successful? Did you get all three things you want? Most people engage in this exercise and come out with one winner and one loser. But is that necessary? What if you both decided to NOT resist the other, and simply allow your wrist to be pinned, back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth again. After three times, you both will have won your wants. Instead of competing with others and trying to find a way to win and have the other person lose, consider if cooperation might be a better choice. It certainly would have been with this exercise.

Look for commonalities. Seeing yourself as similar to others increases feelings of compassion. Instead of recognizing the differences between yourself and others, try to identify what you have in common—traits, experiences, passions, emotions, etc. Ask yourself, “Is she trying to escape some emotional pain, just like I’ve done before?”

Don’t play the blame game. When we blame others for their misfortune, we feel less empathy and concern toward them. If you don’t know, don’t judge.

Model behaviors you want repeated. Research suggests compassion is contagious, so if you want to help compassion spread in others, lead by example.

Calm your inner worrier. When we let our mind run wild with fear in response to someone else’s pain (e.g., What if that happens to me?), we inhibit the biological systems that enable compassion. The practice of mindfulness can help us feel safer in these situations, facilitating compassion.

Notice and savor how good it feels to be compassionate. Studies have shown that practicing compassion and engaging in compassionate actions bolsters brain activity in areas that signal reward.

Put a human face on suffering. When reading the news, look for profiles of specific individuals and try to imagine what their lives have been like.

Don’t become a victim. When we completely take on other people’s suffering as our own, we risk feeling personally distressed, threatened, and overwhelmed; instead, try to be receptive to other people’s feelings without adopting those feelings as your own.

Know you CAN. When we realize we’re capable of making a difference, we’re less likely to curb our compassion.

When we live our lives with greater compassion, amazing transformations happen. Villains disappear. Perspectives change. Needs are realized. Happiness grows. Kindness multiplies. What will you do today to make a positive difference in another person’s life through expressing compassion?  The beauty is, the more compassion you give, the happier you get. Now that’s one gift worthy of re-gifting.