Valentine’s Day reimagined: compassion, kindness, and non-complementary behavior

I’m a sucker for holidays.

I don’t necessarily enjoy the taint of modern consumerism, but I do love food, making things, and celebrating seasons. I enjoy the connection that many of our Western, Christian-ish holidays have to the pagan traditions of Europe, the marking of the passing of time, and the opportunity to break out of our daily routine in a way that is socially acceptable.

I’m not crazy about Valentine’s Day—the combination of pink and red makes me kind of nauseous and I gag at hollow, generic romanticism—but it’s growing on me. It’s a little reprieve from some of the coldest and snowiest days of winter here in New England. And there’s also chocolate.


It would be nice, though, if we could shift the focus from heterosexual, couple-centric, romantic love to all kinds of love, kindness, and compassion. Not that I want to ditch the former completely, but it would be nice to have one day—just ONE DAY—to recognize love for our families, friends, neighbors, and a greater sense of compassion toward all of humanity.

It sounds radical, but it’s actually a rather pragmatic sentiment.

We desperately need more love and compassion in the world. And it’s not about being “nice.” I get a little miffed when I hear people say, “Oh, you were way nicer to that person than I could ever be. I’m just not that nice.” There’s a big difference between being nice and being kind. Being kind means you can be honest and direct while considering the other person’s feelings at the same time. Being nice, though sometimes necessary, is a more artificial way of behaving.

Compassion goes even deeper than kindness. When you feel another person’s suffering and are moved to act in a way that relieves their suffering, that’s compassion (not to be confused with empathy, which is simply feeling another person’s feelings).

Kindness and compassion can start with very, very small actions. pexels-photo-247811

Here’s a start:

We’ve all gotten angry when someone lashes out at us or acts insensitively—a driver who shouts expletives out the window at us, an argumentative family member, or a co-worker who makes a snarky comment. These are, oddly, perfect moments to practice compassion and something called non-complementary behavior.

Why should you bother being compassionate when the other person was in the wrong? Why do they deserve compassion and kindness?

Beyond the intrinsic value of being compassionate toward your fellow humans, there’s a more practical reason.

According to sociological research, we tend to mirror the behavior and perceived emotions of the person we’re interacting with. Which is why things tend to get out of hand when someone shows anger or aggression during an encounter.

“It’s easy for us to mirror our reactions to situations based on how others approach us. It’s called complementary behavior, and it means that if someone greets us with kindness, we’ll likely respond the same way. Conversely, if we’re faced with hostility, we’re more likely to flare up and fire back. But there’s a way to break the cycle: non-complementary behavior. It’s much harder, but it can make all the difference.” (QZ)

What’s interesting is that meeting anger with kindness and compassion can not only keep the situation from escalating, it can help the other person become aware of their own anger and behavior. It took years for me to learn how to respond in this manner to angry emails at work, but when I did, the results were so consistently positive that I never went back. Often, people would even apologize to me for their initial angry message.

I’m not urging anyone to become a pushover or not to defend themselves against violence or aggression. Nor am I saying we have to do these things entirely on our own—there are trained professionals and mediators who do this work on a regular basis. But for those small situations when there’s a chance you could respond differently, it’s worth a try.


So, this Valentine’s Day, try putting yourself into someone else’s shoes for just a very brief moment. It could be a real person that you speak with, a person on the internet, or even a politician you see on TV. Try to imagine what they are feeling and why. Imagine how they would react to your own anger, disdain, or aggression—or your kindness and compassion.

If you’re not ready to do this, you could simply do a random act of kindness for a stranger or loved one. See how they react. Imagine what it feels like when someone does something unusually kind for you. Does it give you a little glow for the rest of the day that then extends to other people? Are you more likely to pass that kindness on to someone else? Does it restore your faith in humanity for just a moment?

It’s not always easy to start acting in this way, but once you do it becomes a gift to you and everyone around you.





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