6 Ways to Deepen Your Compassion to Help Other People

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” ~Dalai Lama

I thought I understood compassion. Having spent ten years of my life training to be a psychiatrist, I knew how to define it, describe it, and think about it. I thought I got it.

A few years ago, my brother was diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Being the mental health professional of the family, I took a long break to be with him as he navigated the initial stages of treatment.

This experience taught me that compassion is more than being nice to someone for a few minutes or hours.

True compassion is hard work, but it’s worthwhile. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

In trying to help him, I too was changed for the better.

Among the many things I tried as part of the process, some worked. Here are the top six that have stood the test of time.

1. Listen.

Often while listening to someone, we are formulating replies in our mind, waiting for a lull in the conversation so we can interject. Try instead to just listen. Suspend all judgment and give the person your undivided attention.

There is powerful healing in sharing your darkest secrets and having another person truly hear it and still love you.

2. Respond to the emotion, not the actual words.

Angry words may conceal fear; guilt may hide behind blame. Whenever I tried to refute my brother’s literal words, he became more insistent. When I tried to understand and respond to the underlying emotion, he began to trust and open up.

3. Get your own support system.

I’m a firm believer that we can only give unconditional love when we can receive it too. Make sure to get out, do things with people you love, and continue to experience life. Replenish your soul.

4. Remember the whole person.

When someone is spiraling into a negative path, you could lose sight of all their positive qualities. Make it a point to remind yourself, at that moment, of a particular strength she/he has. May be it’s his loyalty, or humor, or patience. See the whole person.

5. Put yourself in that situation mentally.

Suffering is universal. Almost all of us have felt joy and pain. The particular details may be unique, but the themes are universal. So, remind yourself of a time when you went through something related.

Meditate on this and remind yourself of every single emotion and worry you had, and how much you longed for empathy and compassion from a fellow traveler. Do this often, so that it becomes second nature.

I once read a true story reported in a Reader’s Digest column. A father and his three children got on a bus in central London. The father was lost in his own thoughts, and the kids, being unsupervised, were loud and disruptive to the other passengers.

Finally, a lady in a nearby seat leaned over to the father and said, “You really need to parent your children better. They are so unruly.” The father, shaken from his reverie, says, “I’m so sorry. Their mother, my wife, just died and we are returning from her funeral. I think we are all a little overwhelmed. I apologize.”

We are often unaware of the pain another person carries inside. So when someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, take a moment and think of this story.

6. You will fail sometimes, so forgive yourself.

Have compassion for yourself too. No one is perfect. Give yourself a break if you come up short sometimes. Remember you are just as human as anyone else. As long as your intentions and efforts are in the right direction most times, it will work out in the end.

Because of this experience, my compassion now flows more from the heart and not just from the mind. I feel the difference, and I hope my patients can too.

What’s the role compassion has played in your life? Please share so we may learn from each other.

Photo by James Cridland

About Kavetha Sundaramoorthy

Kavetha is a psychiatrist, passionate about using neuroscience and eastern mindfulness to help people live their best lives. Subscribe for a free E-book on “How to beat depression using mindfulness,” or find her on Facebook.

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  • abowlinglane

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I believe that compassion is why we’re all here; I’ve chosen it as a conscious practice. So I’ve been thinking about it and talking and writing to family and friends about it for a while now, but it took being confronted with the alcoholism and repeated relapses of someone I love to teach me to live it. And I’m grateful because now compassion is real in my life. Being compassionate isn’t always easy, but now I really understand and feel it. Now I know that my Compassion Conquers All bumper sticker is true. Thank you again.

  • diana marie bruen

    #4 – thank you for this one. Just what I needed to hear today and put in practice with a loved friend.

  • cynthiamv

    I found this to be an outstanding post. I recognized many of the tendencies described and understood immediately how I could change my behaviors to be more compassionate. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences here in such a clear and kind way. Your patients are most fortunate to have such a wise and compassionate doctor. Again, thank you.

  • Annon

    I am working with a client who has complex mental health problems, I broke my professional boundaries the other day and gave this person a hug , I instinctively felt that was what they needed most of all. There is so many ways of looking at this, I hugged this person and left , I could have just left. Am I right or wrong? My clinical supervisor would be appalled. All I know is this person needed to know someone out there cared. Of all the years I have worked with people this person has got under my skin,It breaks my heart to see how many cruel and vicious thing this person has gone through, .

  • Daisy

    Self compassion was key for me in healing from C-PTSD, a result of growing up in a dysfunctional family. The feeling of loving myself after many decades of self loathing is amazing. Compassion has also softened my heart for my family of origin, but not enough to want them in my life.

  • Kavetha

    Hi Cynthia, thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad you found it to be clear and actionable….that’s exactly what I was hoping to convey.

  • Kavetha

    Hi Diana, you are very welcome 🙂

  • Kavetha

    Hi Daisy,
    Yes, the road to self compassion can be bumpy for those of us raised in difficult environments. Glad for you that you are enjoying it now. One step at a time 🙂
    Take good care.

  • Kavetha

    Hi Annon,
    First of all, your client is lucky to have a therapist who cares this much. Secondly, My take on rules is that they should be understood well so you can know when to break them appropriately. I would argue that in this instance, you broke the right rule at the right time and gave this person hope. Which is a wonderful thing 🙂

  • Kavetha

    Thank you for sharing so honestly.I completely agree with you- thinking/learning about compassion is easier than actually living it.Your loved one is blessed to have your continued compassion in his/her life 🙂

  • Caroline

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post (which I almost didn’t take the time to read), and I thank you very much for writing it! The most difficult thing for me, is to have compassion for myself…it simply isn’t there most times. I will continue to strive to be more conscious of this in the future however. 🙂

  • Annon

    Thank you ~ hope is indeed all I can give right, now and yes it is the most wonderful thing ~ I just hope more than anything this person will live a life which accommodates great things ~thank you X

  • Astha Kaushik

    I really needed this one. Trying to help a loved one in overcoming depression, iys costing me too and sometimes i feel cheated and annoyed. But at the end i always regret if i hurt him. Will try to trust him more and will be more compassionate from now. Hope things will be better soon.

  • I find that empathy is key for me to be compasionate. When I operate out of ration and judgement, it is not possible for me to be compasionate.

  • Kavetha

    Hi Julie,
    I fully agree with you. Empathy is what I mean when I talk about trying to out yourself in their shoes mentally. Thank you so much for reinforcing that beautiful concept! 🙂

  • Kavetha

    Hi Astha,
    Thanks for sharing. Your loved one is indeed blessed to have someone by his side who loves him enough to keep working at it. I wish him and you the possibility of growth and more intimacy through this journey.

  • Austin Wallace

    I agree with Schopenhauer, who said that “compassion is the basis of morality.” The problem is that our personal fields of compassion are so small, usually extending only to friends and family. There should be a worldwide compassion day, where each person chooses another and trades places with him for the day. Come to think of it, the chance to inhabit another’s mind and experiences is the only reason art and literature have endured so long…

  • Kavetha

    Hi Caroline, that part was hard for me too…and yet without it, true compassion for anyone else is a struggle. Thank u for reminding us of this 🙂

  • Kavetha

    Hi Austin,
    Beautiful quote. And what a cool idea! I totally second that! Interesting observation of art n literature etc; We actually have brain neurons called ‘mirror neurons’ that light up when another person says or does something that we can recognize (even when we are not doing that action). So we are wired for the capacity for empathy and compassion. Your idea would help us oractice it more 🙂

  • pappu

    Wow I’m speechless!!! Ur amazing:)

  • Kavetha

    Aw thanks Pappu, so are you!

  • This reminds me a bit of how they train you for selling situations. You’re supposed to try to model the prospect. Body language, speech patterns, facial expressions. In the case of compassion, I suppose it would be the “walk a mile in their shoes” analogy.

    Another thing that has become more obvious and evident in recent years with social media is that people would much rather be heard and understood than have anyone really step in and help them change something. Mostly, we just want people to care. That’s it. And maybe that’s good. After all, we really truly do have our own solutions inside of us and we can often “use” other people as a key to unlock our own value.

  • stephanie

    I seen this tweet a few times, and it took about 3 for me to read the post. I’m glad I did. I had a direct need for reading this. My ex-boyfriend, now good friend, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s not something I’ve ever had experience with. While we have had a complicated relationship at times, I have tried to be there for him because he doesn’t have a family in his life. I know I can’t do and be everything for him, but I am trying to be as compassionate as I can in this situation. I think, what if the tables were turned? I would want someone to be there for me. And while I have a lot of family that would be by my side, he doesn’t. This post just resonated with me because its not easy for me right now, and I know its not easy for him either. Thank you.

  • Kavetha

    I’m so sorry that you both are going through such a difficult situation right now. I do believe that when we have truly loved someone, they are always a part of us. So I totally feel your need and attempt to be there for him,especially now. Yes, what if the tables were turned is a beautiful way of summing up the unpredictability of life and the need for us to help one another in this journey. I hope he is comfortable and I wish you peace. Hugs.

  • Kavetha

    Hi Carmelo,
    I agree that human beings mostly want to be understood and cared for first and foremost, social media just being a tool that has made this more evident. I see compassion as a foundation to change, not as a separate process. After all, how can anyone attempt to change a situation they don’t fully get? Our whole world is interdependent, and we need one another to reflect onto, to learn our own sense of values and struggles. And how we interact does shape the lens though which we then view the world.

  • PapaC

    I need to read this post first thing every day for the rest of my life. Thank you!

  • Kavetha

    Hi PapaC,
    I’m honored to have been able to help. Take care 🙂

  • Alicia

    I really needed this. I have been struggling with narcissistic tendencies, from abuse in my family and being around them. I have moments where I am compassionate and understanding, but it’s hard at times for me to see past myself. I’m beginning to ruin my relationship with my fiancée and I didn’t even know until she broke down.
    I’ve known the problem with my actions, but not exactly how to fix them and this has helped me greatly. I am on a path to bettering my relationship and myself.

  • Alfred Castillo

    This post really helps a lot in my field,I’m working as an advocate in a healthcare insurance company and most of our customer’s are elderlies or the experienced ones.We are advised by the company to be compassionate in each call.I’m searching compassion in the web and it is the very first site pops- up in my screen and good thing that I opened this and no hesitation s reading the post.