Compassionate love may be the best gift you can give others – and yourself – as the year comes to an end.
As the holiday season approaches many of us are facing up to the idea that this year, we won’t be around the people we love. Many are making the tough decision between seeing much missed family and friends and doing what seems to be necessary to protect the ones they love and society as a whole.
In a way this potentially painful time of separation feels like a metaphor for the year as a whole…
…From one perspective we as a species have never been more obviously interconnected than we are now. And yet it feels like we are constantly being reminded of all the ways in which we are divided.
The beauty of compassion
The Dalai Lama said: “If you want others to be happy, practise compassion. If you want to be happy, practise compassion.” And there is a growing body of psychological research that supports him. Lots of evidence seems to point towards the idea that an essential element of both individual happiness and wellbeing, and of successful, fulfilling relationships is compassion.
The emerging field of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) actually calls on the Dalai Lama’s definition of compassion – “a sensitivity to suffering in self and others, with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it”. This dual focus is integral to CFT – it aims to promote mental and emotional wellbeing by encouraging people to extend compassion to others, and to themselves.
Some of us, some of the time, can struggle to kindly and compassionately acknowledge the suffering of others, especially if we have decided that they are ‘bad people’. Witness the level of unbridled schadenfreude at the defeat of Donald Trump in the recent US election. For sure, many will look at his record in office and conclude that he has done tremendous harm (just as many will conclude that he has done tremendous good). But it doesn’t take a professional psychologist to conclude that at times he seems like he is suffering – a man in profound mental and emotional turmoil.
A genuine question – what good does it do us to revel in his undoing? Sure, some may find it cathartic, but does it enrich us or diminish us? The same could be asked of those Trump supporters who rejoiced in the ‘liberal tears’ of heartbroken Democrats after the 2016 election. What does this type of crude celebration of others’ sadness do to us as people?
By the same token, some of us, some of the time can be extraordinarily accommodating and forgiving of others in their faults, and yet hold ourselves to punishing standards of perfection. We can be kind to others, and harshly critical and hostile towards ourselves.
Again, the question isn’t about should we, or should we not be self-critical…the question is whether self-criticism or self-compassion is the more resourceful attitude? Which of them helps us to be the people we want to be, and in which situations?
It seems clear that adopting a stance of compassion can at least prevent the worst of the harm that we so often do to others, and to ourselves.
The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology expands on the concept of compassion to identify what it calls ‘compassionate love’ – “a form of love that emphasises the wellbeing of another person. Compassionate love is affectionate and giving, focused on reducing the other’s suffering and promoting their flourishing”.
What might it mean to extend compassionate love to others and to locate it in ourselves? As the year comes to an end, how can we meaningfully connect with the people we love the most, even if we are far from one another; how can we find common ground with those we might strongly disagree with; and – more than anything – how can we find peace in ourselves after a year that has shaken our sense of what is safe and normal?
Here are 3 ideas:
1. Compassionate love for those with whom we disagree
Nobody can heal the broader divisions that mark our societies single-handedly. But we can decide how we want to be, how we want to show up.
Next time you find yourself slipping into judgement of someone with whom you disagree (either in person or – probably more likely – online), pause to engage with the fact that they are a real, fallible, vulnerable human being. Consider that this person is – like you – doing the best with what (skills, knowledge, conditioned beliefs) they have available to them.
Consider that they – like you – are a product of their upbringing, their culture, their environment. That they – like you – struggle and suffer in ways they rarely let others see. That they – like you, like all of us – ultimately want little more that to be loved and accepted, and perhaps are just going about their pursuit of those things in ways that you wouldn’t.
2. Compassionate love for those close to us
It might seem strange but, for some of us, the people we find it hardest to express love towards are those closest to us. We may have been raised in families where these things weren’t spoken about. Certainly – in many Western cultures at least – men are encouraged only to express a very narrow range of emotions.
However, we shouldn’t mistake a lack of overt expression of love for an absence of love. In many families and relationships there are ways in which love and affection are expressed indirectly. The bottom line is there is no right or wrong way to express love – only ways that are felt and appreciated or not felt and appreciated.
Gary Chapman’s 1992 book ‘The Five Love Languages’ proposed that there are five general ways that people express and experience love – acts of service, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time, and words of affirmation. He said that people tend to naturally give love in the way that they prefer to receive it, and that miscommunications often happen when one person is expressing love in a ‘language’ that the other doesn’t understand.
So why not try to learn the ‘love languages’ of the people closest to you – notice how they express affection and see if you can find a way of demonstrating your love for them in their language…
3. Compassionate love for yourself
Kristin Neff is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, and the world’s leading authority on self-compassion. She has dedicated her career to demonstrating that self-compassion doesn’t just feel good – it is an extraordinarily effective route towards wellbeing, happiness, and success.
In the course of her research she has alighted upon many different ways that people can develop their capacity for self-compassion. But her simplest advice is perhaps her most powerful:
“One of the easiest ways is ‘What would I say to a close friend I cared about in this situation?’ Most of us have a lot more experience being compassionate to others than to ourselves.”
How about you?
So, as you come to the end of a uniquely challenging year, how would it be to resolve to be more of a friend to yourself? To notice the inner voice of criticism, the limiting beliefs, and hold them lightly?
To treat yourself as a loved and cherished friend?
If more of us did this more of the time, then no matter what 2021 throws at us, we’ll be able to handle it!