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Put Your Self-Compassion on First, Then Assist Others

Airplane fasten your seatbelt before assisting others

Getty/Kateryna Kukota

“I am a good, kind, and ethical person, but I feel that I sometimes lack compassion. Maybe that’s because in the family I grew up in we were not taught to think of others. I would like to know how I can become a more compassionate person.”

I am a good, kind, and ethical person, but I feel that I sometimes lack compassion. Maybe that’s because in the family I grew up in we were not taught to think of others. I would like to know how I can become a more compassionate person.

Kevin: Your question made me think of a safety instruction anyone who flies has heard many times: “In case of a loss of pressure on the plane, put your oxygen mask on first, then assist others.” If you try to be a hero to the people around you without first ensuring your own oxygen flow, you will quickly pass out. Then you’ll be in real trouble and unavailable to help others.

What does this have to do with becoming more compassionate? Growing up I was taught that the highest ethical guide is love your neighbor as yourself. The emphasis was always on expanding our perception of who’s our neighbor. We were to be sources of love, and presumably compassion, for every other human being. As important as that is, though, no one taught me how to put my self-compassion mask on first. Self-compassion was never discussed because we were supposed to be other-centered, not self-centered.

In his book Compassion, the late Jesuit Henri Nouwen said he knew few people interested in becoming more compassionate. He said this was because becoming capable of suffering with others requires that we have stood in the fire of our own suffering. There aren’t lots of people lining up to suffer so they can be better at helping others who suffer. We may think that being a “positive person” who does not dwell on current or past suffering is more important than letting our suffering transform into compassion.

We don’t have to go looking for dramatic new experiences of suffering to become more compassionate human beings. “Compassion” comes from two Latin roots: passio (suffering, as in the passion of Christ) and com (with). Pati, the root word of passio, means to endure, undergo, or experience. So even if we’re not sure we’ve gone through anything we would call intense suffering, it’s likely we’ve all endured, undergone, or experienced something challenging in life.

Becoming more compassionate begins with looking deeply into our acquaintance with suffering at each stage of life. One of my training supervisors said, “No one gets out of childhood without some wounds.” The same is true of marriage, parenting, and even friendship. Each of us can ask ourselves how we relate to our experience of suffering. Do we compare or minimize it? Were we taught to “suck it up,” to not be weak? Do we ruminate on it, perhaps heaping on repeated doses of self-judgment and criticism? Do we convert a certainty that we’re beyond weakness into judgment of others who struggle with sexuality, mental health problems, self-doubt, or other problems? Or maybe we have learned to accept that suffering can “ferment and season you as few human or divine ingredients can” (Hafiz, as translated by Daniel Ladinsky).

Mahatma Gandhi was asked once about his three most challenging enemies. He responded that the British empire was the easiest of the three and the Indian people were second-most challenging. “My most formidable opponent,” he said, “is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi—with him I seem to have very little influence.” His toughest challenge was with himself, and the same is true for each of us. If we want to be more compassionate with others, the hardest work is to increase our compassion for ourselves.

If we have learned to tap into a source of compassion larger than our small selves—call it Compassion, Love, Source, God—that abundant energy wants to fill us and spill over to others. This allows us to give compassionate presence not from depletion or self-sacrifice but from continual replenishment. We become not just the mask, but the oxygen tank too.

Compassion is like any other great virtue: If we announce that we’re going to share our abundant supply of it with others, we’ve already lost it. Every genuine virtue that flows through our lives is grounded in humility. So how do we know if we are growing in our capacity for compassion? As we practice self-compassion, we might ask less, “Am I becoming more compassionate?” and focus more on noticing a waning of self-judgment, which results in a reduced tendency to judge others. Most people judge themselves more harshly than anyone else on the planet, so working on increasing self-compassion is much the same as decreasing self-judgment.

I don’t think we ever get past the need to practice self-compassion any more than we ever get beyond the need to breathe. Without the constant inspiration of self-compassion, the soul begins turning blue! I hope you’ll try the ideas below as a start to a daily practice of self-compassion.

For practice:

Sit quietly in childlike awe of your breath. Pretend you’re breathing self-compassion from an infinite source. Let it go to every cell of your body and every corner of your mind and spirit.

Put your hands in the prayer position centered over your chest. Imagine they are not your hands, but the very hands of Love and Compassion. Then crisscross them over your heart. Breathe slowly and gently as you receive the loving embrace of unconditional Compassion. Try making a “shhh ...” sound as you exhale, as a loving parent might do for a distressed child.

Send your questions to [email protected] Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.


Kevin Anderson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, poet, and writer who lives in the Toledo, Ohio area. His two most recent books are Now is Where God Lives: A Year of Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul and The Inconceivable Surprise of Living (225 brief essays inspired by life-changing quotations). He can be contacted at [email protected] or through his website: thewingedlife.com


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