How to Practice Compassion When It Seems Impossible

Holding hands in a comforting manner

2016 is not for the faint of heart; news about climate change, terrorism, racism, and gun violence inundate the headlines. United States presidential elections have created clear divides between our friends, neighbors, and families. You may try to avoid the pain by turning off the news and turning on fiction. Tuning out by binge-watching Netflix may seem like a good idea.

However, there’s a better way to handle what’s happening. Instead of crawling into a hole, you can practice compassion for yourself and others. Compassion is the answer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Why Practice Compassion for “Enemies”?

Research indicates that when you practice compassion for others, you benefit as well. That makes sense, right? It feels good to practice compassion. You reap health benefits, your overall well-being improves, and your relationships are better. Compassion is the ultimate win-win.

How is it possible to practice compassion toward people who do so much harm in the world? Here are some techniques you can try.

1. Separate the Person from the Behavior

Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training course challenges participants to consider that people are naturally compassionate, and any unskilled behavior comes from a place of suffering. There is no “bad” person, just bad behavior.

Keep this in mind as you’re labeling someone as a “jerk.” Try to reframe that statement and instead say the person is acting like a jerk. This little nuance may help you see difficult people in a different light. 

2. Imagine Whirled Peas

When polarizing people inundate your news and social feeds, compassion may be the last thing on your mind. Even if you intend to have compassion for someone difficult, you may feel blocked. Without realizing it, your mind may be dehumanizing that person. In other words, you don’t see that person as human.

Studies suggest it is easier to empathize with someone if you have something in common with that person. That helps you see a person as human. If you don’t have anything in common with someone, your mind may actually see that person as an object instead of a human.

One study out of Princeton discovered a clever way to humanize someone. Researchers found that when participants imagined a person enjoying a particular vegetable, they were able to recognize that person as human. 

I invite you to try this with someone who creates tension or frustration in your life. Imagine sharing asparagus or sweet corn with your least favorite political figure, and see if anything shifts.

3. Try a Loving-kindness Meditation

Consider meditation to be like brain training. Just like an Olympic athlete may use visualization techniques to improve his or her performance, you can use meditation to improve your empathy breadth. By visualizing compassion for friends, strangers, and “enemies,” you may be more likely to see all people as human and worthy of compassion.

Try this loving-kindness meditation by Steven Hickman, PhD, and see how it affects your ability to empathize with others.

4. Don’t Forget Yourself

As I mentioned earlier, compassion is not easy. You may have a difficult time exercising your compassion muscle for certain people, and that is totally normal. Try not to beat yourself up about it, and give yourself a pat on the back for having compassionate intentions.

We often forget to tend to our own suffering, so be sure you include yourself in your circle of compassion. If you’d like to try on self-compassion, check out this brief self-compassion practice by Kristin Neff, PhD. 

Looking to increase compassion for yourself and others? Register for Compassion It’s free 30-Day Challenge and create peace within you and around the world.


Want to go even deeper? Learn to improve your internal dialogue and create a more positive outlook at our emotional freedom workshop, Healing the Heart. Experience support as you are guided through our 5-step healing process and leave feeling more connected to a complete state of mindfulness. Click here to learn more.

 

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About the Author
Sara Schairer is the founder and executive director of COMPASSION IT , a start-up nonprofit organization and global social movement whose mission is to inspire daily compassionate actions and attitudes. She created the one-of-a-kind reversible COMPASSION IT wristband prompting compassionate actions on six continents, 48 countries, and all 50 states. Wristband sales fund compassion education programs for youth, teens, and adults. As a public speaker, Sara encourages her audiences to “compassion it” in their daily lives. A Stanford-certified instructor of Compassion Cultivation...Read more