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The Importance of Compassion and Kindness in Today’s World

What is the exact meaning of compassion, and why is it so important?

Key points

  • When a person returns another's lack of kindness, negativity spreads and gains momentum.
  • Acting with compassion in a confrontational situation can neutralize an unpleasant or dangerous encounter.
  • A compassionate response can involve counteracting negativity, setting healthy boundaries, and stepping away.

Challenging times can make for some trying encounters. It’s when the going gets tough that the true value of having compassion for others and acting in kindness comes into sharp focus.

We all know what kindness is, but many of us are unsure of the exact meaning of compassion, and why it is so important.

In her post, "How to Build a More Compassionate Mind," Diana Hill defines compassion as “willingly turning toward pain with courage, acceptance, and care.” Further, she explains, "It’s often compassion toward the people we don’t love or even like (including ourselves) that has the most impact.”

Compassion is more than a feel-good buzzword. In her post, "Compassion: Our First Instinct," Emma Seppälä explores the science of compassion, framing it as "a natural tendency ... essential for human survival.”

Kindness, many agree, is compassion in action. Compassion is a state of mind that inspires kindness toward others.

Our increasingly wild world

As the fallout from the pandemic continues to negatively impact everything from supply chains and customer service to air travel and the cost of living, people are coping with unexpected challenges in their everyday lives and routines.

In a January 2022 New York Times article, Sarah Lyall brings today’s escalating consumer rage into sharp focus: Of the current state of frustration of the American public, Scott M. Broetzmann, CEO of Customer Care Measurement and Consulting, a firm that conducts studies of consumer rage, said, “I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined that we would be seeing people fighting on planes and beating each other up.”

A July 2022 news report cites growing anxiety due to inflation, mass shootings, war, pandemic, and insurrection, noting, "The American people have been left feeling like so many things have spiraled out of control and that those charged with addressing them can't—or won't—fix them."

The American Psychological Association concurs: “Americans have been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and...the external factors Americans have listed in previous years as significant sources of stress remain present and problematic.”

The world, in a nutshell, is a big and unpredictable place. In it, there are a lot of people who may not conform to our idea of how the world should work, and how people should interact. We may encounter people with thoughts and behaviors that are unhealthy, and judgmental of ourselves and others. It is highly likely that we may encounter people who behave hurtfully, judgmentally, or critically or act out in anger. At times, we may find ourselves at odds with people we don’t even know—in parking lots, stores, parks, airports, virtually anywhere we may encounter people in pain.

People in pain

People in pain spill onto others. When people are feeling low self-esteem or pain, they can become negative in their thoughts, moods, demeanors, and actions. Through their interactions with others, their pain spreads and spills over. When we react in kind to unkindness, the negativity spreads. A cycle of negativity gains momentum and can become quite hurtful, even violent.

This is where compassion and kindness come in.

The ripple effect of a compassionate response

It is not difficult to be kind and considerate to people who treat us well. But showing compassion for people who are acting and reacting from low self-esteem, rather than returning in kind their negativity and judgment is a different story. Here is where a compassionate response can be a true game-changer.

When we find ourselves in a tense, confrontational situation, when we act in compassion rather than matching the negative energy coming our way, we can neutralize what could become a very unpleasant encounter with unpleasant results. When we counteract the negative thoughts and actions of others with positive and kind actions that deescalate rather than increase tensions, our positive, compassionate response creates a ripple effect.

No need to suffer or accept abuse

When we interact with people stuck in negative patterns, we don’t need to suffer and accept abuse. We can respond by counteracting negativity, setting healthy boundaries, and stepping away. (See my post on building healthy boundaries.)

We don’t have to respond to mean, hurtful, critical, insulting, judgmental, or abusive encounters in kind. We can have compassion for, and act in kindness to, ourselves and others, and respond in kindness. In doing so, we remind people who are in pain, darkness, low self-esteem, and ignorance that they can be better, higher versions of themselves.

Compassion for ourselves, others, society, and our world Is a game-changer. Bringing compassion to what you can control—your thoughts, actions, and reactions—ripples outward and makes the world a better place.

Five steps to putting compassion into action

  1. Be aware of and prepared for potentially charged or challenging situations and settings.
  2. Stop yourself from matching the negative energy of others.
  3. Bring in empathy for those who are acting in negativity — and for yourself.
  4. Counteract negativity with a kinder, more positive response.
  5. Set healthy boundaries that keep you safe and secure.
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