Compassion opens the door to happiness. We all want to receive compassion from others, since it shows that people see and understand us. Compassion is the mode of expression that tells us we are not alone; that hearts and arms are open for us if we choose to accept them. It is the instinct that drives someone to serve food at a homeless shelter, donate money to famine victims, or help a friend in need without expectation of reward.
To some extent, compassion is a decision. Studies suggest that people are more involved in developing their compassion when they understand that compassion, and its bedfellow empathy, can be improved. It is not a permanent personality feature, but a skill that is learned like chess, or tennis, or public speaking.
At the same time, it is often not easy for someone to develop their compassionate side. STs in particular approach life in an objective and analytical manner, tending towards the realities of a situation. When they offer support, they are more likely to do so in practical ways than by showing the traits of warmth, kindness and gentleness. Certainly they have a desire to understand and alleviate another's pain, but they do so from an objective viewpoint - they keep an emotional distance from the problem. As such, STs may come across as insensitive compared to those personalities that absorb the pain of those they help, like INFPs.
While accusations of insensitivity are unfounded, STs may have to work a little harder than others to show that they are, in fact, emotionally invested in others, motivated to care for them, and moved by their distress. With that in mind, here are some tips to help STs unleash their compassionate side.
#1: Put yourself in the other person's shoes
The ST brain is highly observational and good at understanding the differences between people. What it's perhaps not so good at, is identifying the similarities. Next time you're struggling to understand someone's hardships, try reflecting on the things you have in common. All human beings are alike in the things that matter - we all crave love, acceptance, recognition, affection, and happiness. When you feel hurt by someone, it's especially important to let yourself feel their afflictions and remind yourself that they are just like you.
#2: Be fully present with others
Compassion is the art of being fully present with someone. Being a supportive and attentive friend means staying in the moment with them, and not thinking ahead about the practical ways you might solve their problem. It needs to start with fully listening to someone, as generously as you can. Resist the temptation to judge or to fix things - it's not necessary or helpful. Often, all that someone wants is for you to pay attention to them and to know that you're engaged and tuned into their suffering.
An important part of being present is to choose your language carefully. Sometimes, it's not what we do or say but what the other person hears that counts. You can demonstrate that you are sensitive to another's wellbeing by staying humble and not talking much about yourself. Instead, echo back the other person's language. This shows that you're paying kind witness to whatever they're feeling in the moment.
Meditation has been shown to be hugely beneficial to those who wish to develop their compassionate side. When researchers from the University of Wisconsin asked people to meditate on moments in their lives when someone showed them compassion, they found that participants greatly inflated their compassion muscle and responded to the suffering of others with attention and the desire to help. Biologically, the lower parietal lobe (the area of the brain responsible for empathy) was seen to become considerably more developed compared to the lobes of participants who did not meditate. Remarkably, these brain changes occurred after only seven hours of meditation training.
Volunteering your time and resources to those who are going through a tough time is one of the surest ways to feel more connected with a person or a cause. Research shows that those who volunteer feel happier, kinder, more compassionate and more loved, as well as experience a greater sense of purpose. Volunteering also helps to develop the traits of temperance and self-restraint; by helping others, you become more sensitive to the complexity of individual situations. You'll be less likely to view problems through the narrow lens of logic and instead start connecting with the wider human experience.
#5: Be compassionate with yourself
STs have a habit of being hard on themselves. You often fail to appreciate your own talents and the difficulties you have encountered in your life. Yet the ability to forgive yourself greatly influences your capacity for self-compassion, which in turn influences the ease with which you show compassion for others. Using a Buddhist model of self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff at self-compassion.org has identified three dimensions of self-compassion:
- Kindness: understanding the difficulties you face and being kind to yourself in the face of failure.
- Common humanity: placing your personal experience within the larger context of the human condition, rather than seeing it as isolating or shameful.
- Mindful acceptance: acceptance of painful situations rather than over-analyzing them.
Teaching yourself self-compassion skills is an important step in connecting with the emotional side of compassion - what compassion feels like. If you don't give yourself a break when you need it, you are less likely to do it for others. You are just as important as everyone else.
Summing It Up
There's enough science to show that compassion is not some woolly emotion we can afford to dispense with in our frenetic resource-limited lives, but a vital way to connect with others and provide support for them in whatever way we can. Habits like listening to others, being more aware of commonalities than differences, meditation, volunteering, and being kind to yourself are all helpful for increasing emotional awareness, and can really boost the compassion you feel for others, and yourself.