Emotional agility and compassion

Emotional agility is one of our core resilience skills. It encompasses the ability to experience emotions fully, to respond to them appropriately, and to use positive emotion to broaden and build our coping repertoire, as well as our “bounce back” when life is hard.

One powerful tool to enhance this skill of emotional agility is to practise compassion: compassion for others, and self-compassion for ourselves.

There is increasing evidence from scientific studies that using compassion strengthens personal wellbeing and resilience, as well as creating more positive interactions in relationships and teams.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – Dalai Lama

The definition of compassion is the ability to understand the emotional state of another person or ourselves. Often confused with empathy, compassion has the extra element of having a desire to alleviate suffering. Empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to put ourselves in another person’s place. Although compassion and empathy are two distinct concepts, having compassion for someone can then lead to feeling empathy.

Self-compassion can be harder to define. Self-compassion involves thinking and acting kindly toward ourselves, especially when we fail or are finding things difficult. Some researchers suggest that perceiving our life experiences as part of the larger human experience aids self-compassion as does “holding” (sitting with, not trying to ignore) painful thoughts and feelings.

It is important to note that self-compassion does not mean letting ourselves off the hook or failing to be responsible. It means holding the big picture when thinking about our failures and weaknesses, keeping in mind what we are doing well, or even what we are just trying to do, as well as what we are doing badly, or less well than we would like.

How can we increase our levels of compassion? Since compassion is a skill, we can improve it through the process of paying attention, through practice and from feedback. Some compassion researchers describe the process as increasing our compassion “bandwidth”. It can therefore be helpful to make a routine to practise, perhaps at a certain time each day, or when carrying out particular activities.

Increasing compassion for others:

  • Start with genuinely wanting to understand or help others.
  • Practise understanding using a totally different perspective than you would usually apply – what could be another reason for the person acting this way?
  • Use the principle of “a good reason” – when someone has done something that hurts or upsets you, assume they had a good reason for doing it. Ask more questions and try to take account of the big picture.
  • Acts of kindness – see if you can do kind acts every day, for people you find tricky, as well as those you like.
  • Practise meditation or mindfulness. Loving-Kindness-Meditation in particular has been shown to improve compassion.

Increasing compassion for ourselves:

  • Again use the “good reasons” principle – what was my reason for behaving in this way? What can I do differently next time?
  • Regular meditation or mindfulness practice.
  • View ourselves through the lens of people who hold us in high regard – X would say I am doing the best I can in these circumstances, Y tells me I’m coping well.
  • Continue to ask questions and take account of the big picture when thinking about personal failures – what are all the factors that have contributed to this?
  • Pay attention to, acknowledge and even write down personal successes or things we are proud of.

For more ideas listen to psychologist Professor Paul Gilbert, an expert in the field of compassion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GKVMILwzdY

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