The holiday season can be truly anxiety-inducing. From coordinating travel plans to finding the perfect gifts, there are a number of pressures that can weigh on all of us during this time of year, including dealing with certain friends and family members whose worldview may be (very) different from yours.
But instead of letting your blood boil during heated arguments at the dinner table, one simple and surprising way to ease some of that stress may be to show compassion toward the thoughts and feelings of your more “misguided” family members. And more than that, the holiday season is the perfect time to be kind and helpful to others — especially those who tend to be overlooked by the rest of society.
Showing compassion can still be a pretty abstract concept, though — what does it really mean to be a compassionate person? And how can practicing compassion improve your health? We spoke to some experts to find out.
What is compassion?
“Compassion is a state of being in which we can feel from within our own experience sorrow, empathy, care for another human being,” Dr. Barbara Vacarr, CEO of Kripalu, Center for Yoga & Health, tells SheKnows. “It becomes the vehicle that connects us.”
And according to Dr. Kristen UnKauf, a counselor at Northlake Medical Psychology and Counseling in Mandeville, Louisiana, the best way to start connecting compassionately is to acknowledge the experience of another person.
“I think that most if not all people want someone to ‘get’ them — understand the impact of negative experience,” she tells SheKnows. “Awareness is key. Ask questions — ‘What is this experience like for you; how can I help?’”
Sure, your uncle may be totally trolling you based on your last politically driven Facebook post, but instead of getting fired up and flinging mashed potatoes at him, you might be surprised at what you learn if you ask him questions about his beliefs rather than tuning him out or telling him he’s wrong. UnKauf warns against intolerance of others’ points of view, as this intolerance is often rooted in fear.
“It’s OK not to agree!” she says. “Fear can shut us down and block access to adaptive processes, such as accessing compassion.”
Being compassionate is good for you too
Practicing compassion doesn’t just make you look like a nice guy either; in the Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness, author Dr. Amit Sood says compassion can make you happier, decrease your stress levels and help put your own perceived problems into perspective by shifting your focus to the stresses of another.
Before you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes though, it’s important to remember to show yourself some compassion too.
“It starts with yourself by doing the following: practicing self-compassion, relaxing your judgments of yourself and others, healing your own trauma [and] practicing radical self-care,” ordained minister and host of NPR’s All Revved Up! Rev. Irene Monroe tells SheKnows.
Eating something healthy, talking a walk or lying down are all easy ways to make your mind and body feel more at ease if you start to feel overwhelmed.
“Self-care is a concrete action that is focused on well-being inclusive of physical and emotional needs, which include proper diet, exercise and avoidance of behaviors [or] activities that deplete,” says UnKauf.
So if you find yourself stressed by the holidays, remember a little compassion is a great gift for everyone.