A compassionate resolution for this season

December 21, 2016

By: Jane Dutton, Monica Worline

We started our staff meeting yesterday with a check-in question for everyone to answer briefly: What are you doing to take care of yourself this holiday season?

Upon hearing the check- in question, one member of our staff immediately laughed and spontaneously shouted out, “Are you kidding? Being a mom during the holidays? Between work and events and shopping and cookie share parties and everything else that I have to do, when do you think I have time to take care of myself?” So many of us resonate with this level of stress – we want to enjoy the holidays with our families, but the work involved in “making the season bright” adds a level of pressure that makes it difficult to savor the joy.

People suffer during the holiday season, often in silence. Another staff member shared the pressure of caring for an elderly relative whose health was rapidly declining, a labor of love for sure, but one that was adding a flavor of sadness to the holidays. Often holidays of all kinds bring up unwanted memories of those we have lost or unwittingly trigger us to remember other difficult life events. In fact, stress-related life events such as the holidays trigger as many as half of the world’s episodes of depression, according to Robert Hales, Chairman of the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

And then there’s the added pressure of a new year coming and all the looming “resolutions” that tend to come along as well, emphasizing how we need to be better or different in the future! In the face of all these pressures and stresses, we need reminders about the importance and power of compassion as part of any resolution we make. How can we tap into the beauty and power of compassion in the midst of this season of stress, sadness, and pressure?

First, look for compassion stories.

What we focus on matters so much for how we feel. There’s a well-known legend in which a grandfather tells his grandson that whether the wolf of stress and darkness in his psyche wins out over the wolf of compassion and light depends mightily on which wolf he feeds. Compassion stories are everywhere, if we look for them. Reading and sharing these stories isn’t just a feel-good activity; engaging with stories of compassion teaches us new ways to feed our internal wolf of compassion. One story we loved recently was shared on the KindnessBlog: “When my husband died unexpectedly, a coworker took me under her wing. Every week for an entire year, she would send me a card saying ‘Just thinking of you’ or ‘Hang in there.’ She saved my life.”

At such a time, how do we unlock the beauty and healing power of compassion?

Second, remember that small actions can make a big difference.

When someone’s husband dies unexpectedly, it often seems like there’s not much we can do in the face of so much suffering and grief. But a coworker with a discerning eye for moments ripe for compassion, and a simple calendar reminder to write a card again each week became so important that this woman would write: “She saved my life.” When you notice moments like this, ripe for compassion, do something–even if it seems small. You will never know how any small act of compassion may leave a lasting imprint on another’s life. Our research shows that these seemingly small moments are highly consequential.

Finally, resolve to make more generous interpretations of yourself and others.

In our forthcoming book entitled Awakening Compassion at Work, we help people see how often the work context, or the context of other organizations like schools, places of worship, or community organizations, subtly tip us toward interpretations that either facilitate or block compassion. For instance, someone who is late in an organization with a strict time policy can become easily interpreted as irresponsible, making it easy to deny them our empathy.

The stress and pressure of the season sometimes tip us toward the interpretation that we don’t have the resources to cope with the unexpected arrival of someone’s odd or “bad” behavior that might be born out of suffering or pain. That interpretation blocks our compassion. And the interpretation that we aren’t enough, that we aren’t getting enough done, that we aren’t living up to the expectations of this loaded season, or that we have to fix ourselves with New Year’s resolutions and be different in the future all block our compassion toward our own inner experience as well as toward others.

We all do this, all the time. Luckily, tools like mindfulness, awareness of our breath, contemplation, and self-reflection can help us catch these moments—for these moments, too, are ripe for compassion. When you find yourself saying internally, “I just can’t deal with this right now,” pause for a moment and invite yourself to make a generous interpretation. You are worthy. You are a wonder. You deserve compassion and so does the world around you.

For our staff member who couldn’t find a moment of self-care in her packed holidays, we listened and affirmed her frustrations, as well as wished her some moments of peace such as taking five breaths each day. For our staff member who was caring for her dying relative in addition to her young children, we offered to ourselves take five breaths of peace and send them to her each day. The power of these examples is in their simplicity. A simple check-in question at the beginning of a staff meeting opened the door for ways to awaken compassion at work and led us to reflect on the need all of us have for new compassion resolutions this season.

Originally published by Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education Blog, Stanford University.