I invite students to reflect on their own levels of self-compassion, and then debate the merits of the advice: “Before you can help others, you must first help yourself.” They usually come to the consensus that humans project their pain onto others and that this reflective work is key to imagining a holistic inner-outer peace while facilitating mutual understanding across cultural divides.
For homework, I ask students to put self-compassion into action by choosing or adapting one of the exercises from this article. It details some ways to improve your self-compassion skills, such as keeping a journal, imagining how you would treat a friend in need and learning how to comfort yourself when you’re suffering.
The Kindness Game
From compassion for the self, we move to the next level of analysis: compassion for a neighbor, or, in this case, a classmate, by playing “The Kindness Game.”
For this activity, I randomly provide each of my students an envelope that contains a slip of paper with the name of one of their classmates. I then give them the following instructions: “You have 48 hours, if you choose to participate, to perform an act of care for the person listed on your piece of paper.” I remind them that, like in the real world, inaction is a political statement. So, if they choose not to participate, their grades will not be affected as long as they explain their reasoning for doing so.
The simulation has profound implications. Students discover that both action and inaction are contagious. For example, when an influential member of the class chooses not to participate, others follow. However, when a student raises the bar by their compassionate act — like one student who produced a video capturing the reasons their classmate is an asset to their community — the thoughtfulness of the other deeds increases.
Students also begin to distinguish pity, sympathy, empathy and compassion. They realize that there is a distinction between, say, being polite and actually making someone feel seen and heard. This is when I introduce the “Spectrum of Empathy” graph from the Nielsen Norman Group. In “Sympathy vs. Empathy in UX,” Sarah Gibbons explains:
There is no firm threshold that marks one’s transition from sympathy to empathy. Rather, the relation between the two is best represented on a spectrum with pity (the most disconnected and abstracted version of sympathy) on one end and compassion (the more connected and embodied version of empathy) on the other.
As we examine the graph, we discuss how higher levels of effort, understanding and engagement are key facets of compassionate action.