Put Your Self-Compassion on First, Then Assist Others
Spirituality & Health|Jan/Feb 2021
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 ANDERSON

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.

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