Three Questions to Ask About Compassion

This is a follow up post to last week’s thoughts on selfishness and compassion.

Helping others makes us feel good, right? There is all sorts of research that shows that when we are compassionate and altruistic, we are happier. But can you remember a time when you reached out and helped someone else and resented it or felt worse afterward? It turns out that why we choose to be compassionate has a lot of impact on how compassion affects us.

We know that external motivation isn’t as effective at building long-term behavior patterns as internal motivation is. That is, if we help others because we think we should, we won’t feel as good as if we had done it because we truly wanted to.

Sometimes, we help others because we feel sorry for them, but it turns out that this doesn’t generally make us feel good, either. It makes us feel superior, but it doesn’t make us feel good.  Consider this quote from Pema Chodron:

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals.

It is also common for individuals to self-identify as “helpers,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can prove to be difficult over time. If we derive our self-worth from helping others, we can find it harder to accept help from others when we need it.

Engaging adolescents in conversations about compassion, rather than simply imploring them to act in ways we define as compassionate, can be an incredibly powerful tool as they begin to build habits of thought and action. The following three questions can spur some impactful discussions.

  1. Why do I choose to act compassionately? Does it depend on the circumstance and the people involved?
  2. What, if anything, do I get or hope to get out of acting compassionately? Does that depend on the situation?
  3. How do I feel when others act compassionately toward me?

The more mindful we all are about when and how and why we choose to be compassionate, the more we can begin to understand how to make our actions count in big ways. And if adolescents are taught that having personal boundaries is not incongruent with compassion, they can begin to develop a better sense of self-compassion as well.

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