So much of what’s great in our lives exists because of our relationships. At their best, our friends, family, and romantic partners all offer love, joy, and care. We celebrate each other in good times and support each other through challenges. Even relationships with co-workers, roommates, and people we engage with online can have a big influence on how we feel in our day-to-day lives.
We aim to have healthy relationships with anyone who enters our own little world. But it can be tricky, because we all come with our own personalities, beliefs, values, and sets of experiences. Disagreements and misunderstandings are inevitable. Being out of sync with those around us can easily trigger painful emotions and negative thoughts.
That’s where meditation can help. We can’t avoid drama entirely or control how other people act, but we can practice being kind to our own mind so that we can show up at our best for the people around us. Through a daily meditation practice — even just 5 or 10 minutes — we can create the conditions to be calmer, clearer, and more compassionate so that we can start having healthy connections with the people in our life.
Meditation can help build compassion, empathy, and other qualities of healthy relationships
Healthy relationships with others start when we’re kind to our own mind
Try meditations for better relationships with Headspace
Healthy relationships are loving, nourishing, fulfilling, engaging, and supportive. Before our relationships can be this way with others, it’s important to be this way with ourselves.
So let’s start there. How’s our relationship with ourselves? Do we treat ourselves like someone we love? To answer this question, think about the way we speak to ourselves in our minds. Do we give ourselves the same kindness and understanding that we’d offer a friend? Most likely not.
But that’s normal. It’s natural for the mind to think up reasons to question our self-worth and bring us down with negative self-talk. Other people’s criticisms and opinions have influenced our mind since childhood. Depending on the relationships we’ve witnessed or experienced, we might be conditioned to be suspicious, keep up our guard, unleash anger, be demanding, blame others, or people-please.
Once we have the self-awareness to notice these traits, the resilience to grow out of our conditioning, and the compassion for ourselves and other people who are hopefully trying to do the same, then we can build relationships with others that feel good. We can start this solo work by simply being kind to ourselves. And we can always choose to be kinder to ourselves, especially with meditation in our mental health toolkit.
Our relationships have a huge impact on how we feel, think, and behave. And, in turn, how we feel, think, and behave has a huge impact on our relationships. That’s why meditation for relationships can be so beneficial. By intentionally spending time with our mind, we become more aware of the stories we tell ourselves and behaviors that affect how we show up or don’t in relationships.
Maybe negative thoughts are preventing us from having quality relationships. Think about a friend who doesn’t return a call. We have no way of knowing why they didn’t answer, but sometimes, the mind can’t help but make up a story about why they didn’t. “They must be angry at me,” we might think. Or, “Something bad must have happened.” Maybe because we’re scared, we spend the whole afternoon trying to get through to them, or because we’re hurt, we don’t answer when they finally call back.
These behaviors are all reactions to our thoughts, which we’ve given meaning to. Meditation helps us understand that thoughts are just thoughts — they’re not necessarily the truth. When we believe our thoughts as if they’re facts, we can behave in reactionary ways we’re not proud of and even hurt the people we care about most.
Meditation won’t silence the voice in our heads — the mind will always think. But meditation helps us realize we don’t have to always listen to it. We can take a step back, zoom out, understand what the mind is doing, and simply let the thought go. When we give ourselves that time and space to notice we’re stuck in a negative or unhelpful loop, we can be less reactive. And when we do this, we feel less restless and maybe better equipped to handle unanswered calls in the future. Just 10 days of Headspace has been shown to result in an 11% decrease in stress.
The less power we give our thoughts, the better we feel. And when we start feeling better, the people around us do too. Research shows that moods are contagious. In one study, participants were 25% more likely to be happy if a nearby friend was happy. This makes it clear that the best way to have better relationships is to start by caring for our own mind.
Meditation can also help with tensions that can arise whenever there’s a meeting of two minds. We want to eat tacos, but our partner wants pasta. We ask for a work project to be completed by Monday, but our colleague can’t turn it around until Wednesday at the earliest. We want our group trip to feel impulsive and spontaneous, but our pals make a spreadsheet for planning. We want to avoid talking politics at family dinner, but our uncle won’t stop going there. Ugh.
We can’t control how other people act. But with a daily meditation practice, we can much more easily accept that reality. Especially once we learn that we’re in complete control of how we respond to these frustrating scenarios. We don’t have to grumble or ghost or get steamrolled. We can engage calmly, kindly, and in a way that doesn’t compromise our boundaries or values. By taking these actions, we can show others how healthy relationships should function.
If these scenarios happen over and over again, the relationships might need a dynamic change. Meditation can help us find the mental clarity, confidence, and empathy to prepare for a tough conversation — and handle the outcome.
Awareness is the moment we notice and pay attention to our mind’s thoughts, patterns, and behaviors. With awareness, we learn to watch the thoughts and feelings that pop up in our minds and realize that we have a choice about whether or not to react to them. Once we can do that on our own, we find it easier to pause and reflect when interacting with others. We start to notice our not-so-useful behavior patterns in relationships and understand what stories we’ve been telling ourselves that inspire those behaviors.
Every time we meditate, we train ourselves to be more aware of our thoughts and feelings. With this new awareness, we can zoom out a bit and give ourselves a healthy sense of perspective rather than fall back into negative thought patterns. When we realize the thought we’re having isn’t helpful, we can notice it, then let it go.
When we’re reactive, we act on our thoughts and feelings without pausing to reflect. Maybe we’re jealous of how much time our partner spends with their coworkers. If we’re reactive, we might lash out and say something critical like, “You don’t care about me.” We might tell them they can’t spend time with their coworkers anymore.
Research shows that people who practice mindfulness can be less reactive. That’s because when we realize that our behaviors are influenced by the stories in our mind, we start to catch the thoughts as they’re forming before doing or saying something we might regret. We’re able to pause and recognize that we’re experiencing jealousy. We might be able to hear the thought behind the jealousy, something like “I’m worried they don’t care about me,” or “I’m afraid of losing them.” We become less reactive and can instead ask ourselves where these fears come from and whether or not they’re true.
Showing compassion is key to having healthy relationships. It helps us dissolve conflict and offer care and connection. When we find ourselves in disagreements, compassion helps us see peoples’ actions in a more generous light and makes it easier to let go of the stories we tell ourselves about why they do the things they do.
Meditation helps us find that compassion. One study found that three weeks of Headspace increased compassion by 21%. By the end of that study, people who meditated with Headspace for 10 minutes each day for those three weeks were more likely to help a stranger in need compared to participants who didn’t meditate.
As important as it is to find compassion for those around us, it’s important to first find that compassion for ourselves. Research shows that self-compassion is crucial for our well-being. One study found that mindfulness is a great way to tap into our self-compassion. As Headspace teacher Dora Kamau says, “If we are kinder to ourselves, we can accept ourselves as we are.” And when we do that, we can soothe ourselves when relationships get challenging and show up for those around us with ease.
We practice empathy when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and try to understand their feelings and perspectives. It’s another quality that helps us have healthy relationships and allows us to be less reactive.
Research shows we can build our capacity for empathy through a mindfulness practice. When we meditate, we become less judgmental of our own thoughts and learn to forgive ourselves for our actions. With practice, we learn to extend this openness to others as well. We learn to see people as they are and understand that, like us, they’re trying their best. As Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe puts it, “Empathy does not require that we have been through the same thing as another person, simply that we meet them where they are now.”
When we’re stressed, it’s hard to be calm, compassionate, and present with those around us. And that can make our relationships feel tense. We can get snappy or place our worry on other people. And that doesn’t make us great to be around. Meditation can help us deal with that stress. Research shows mindfulness can even shrink the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in our response to stress and fear. This helps us respond more thoughtfully in stressful situations. And research also shows that just 30 days of Headspace reduces stress by a third.
Meditation helps us discover a kinder, more open, and accepting mind. But this specific one is about directing well wishes to ourselves first and then to others. Research shows that loving-kindness meditation (aka compassion meditation) may be able to make us feel more positive about the relationships in our lives and improve our overall well-being. Another study showed that loving-kindness meditation can help us improve our interactions with others and make it easier to understand them.
We can use different visualization techniques to access loving-kindness. One way is through first bringing to mind someone we feel truly cares for us and imagining them wishing us happiness and sending kindness our way. As we do this, we might feel ourselves relax into a sense of warmth, ease, and joy. With awareness of those feelings, we can imagine someone in our lives who might need an extra boost or even someone we’ve been in conflict with. Taking those good feelings we’ve found, we can imagine extending those same feelings and well-wishes to someone else.
While most people think of meditation as a solo activity, there are real benefits to practicing meditation with others. One study found that just 10 minutes of meditating with someone else helped people feel closer to one another.
There’s no wrong way to meditate with a partner or friend. We can simply share space while tending to our own practice. Taking the time to be kind to our minds together is a real act of intimacy and will help us feel closer and more compassionate toward one another. But there are specific techniques we can use for couples or group meditation. We can use visualization techniques like picturing our meditation partner receiving the benefits of our practice, or we can direct a loving-kindness meditation toward the other person in the room.
The Headspace app has hundreds of guided exercises to help you build your practice. Start by searching these three meditations to help you have healthy relationships. A happier, healthier you is a few breaths away.
Relationships course. Learn to focus less on self-critical chatter to achieve greater harmony with others and within yourself.
Managing Conflict single meditation. Learn to put down your fixed position and create the environment for a calm, productive conversation.
Loving Others single meditation. Discover the different ways other people bring value to your life, and view them with a newfound sense of respect, gratitude, and harmony.