Self-compassion takes courage: It requires looking honestly at how we create our suffering and then responding to it with love. In particular, we tend to resist deeply examining our role in difficult interpersonal interactions, and instead create all sorts of strategies to rationalize our responses and avoid suffering. Without the courage to pause and look — and not run away — self-compassion is not possible.
For example, my deep-seated tendency to feel judged affects my ability to truly listen and stay present, especially in challenging conversations. I become argumentative and defensive, shut down and resentful. I hold tightly to my position and don’t really hear what the other person is trying to communicate. Self-compassion and compassion for the other fly out the window.
So after a recent difficult conversation, I decided to try something new and use the self-inquiry tool developed by my Buddhist community, Nalandabodhi, to deal with interpersonal conflicts. Among the questions were the following:
- Have I reflected honestly on my feelings, needs, habitual tendencies and styles of communication so as not to create obstacles to constructive and compassionate communication?
- Have I reflected on how my speech or actions may, even inadvertently, have contributed to the conflict or misunderstanding?
- Have I taken responsibility for my view, actions, and speech, rather than attributing blame to others?
- Am I willing to value kindness and open-mindedness above vindication or being “right,” and to intend a “win-win” rather than “win-lose” outcome?
Reflecting on and responding authentically to these questions was a real eye-opener for me. In particular, I clearly saw my tendency to respond defensively when I feel judged, and it brought me to tears, remembering how often I felt judged and criticized, even as a young child. I cried for that hurt little girl and held her with compassion. In the process of looking honestly and with clarity, all the storylines and justifications dissolved.
Sometimes we think that self-compassion is self-indulgence. Self-indulgence includes holding on to the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions and reactions. In contrast, it takes compassion and courage to let go of our narratives and look honestly at our responses. A former therapist would often ask me, “So what are you going to do about it?” when I complained, repeating my typical storyline: “Well, that’s because my mother was so judgmental.” My therapist’s response used to irk me, but I now find it empowering.
In troublesome interactions, it’s easy to focus our attention on the other person, attributing all kinds of blame to them, and maybe even trying to “fix” them. When we ignore our responses, we miss the opportunity to understand our own discomfort and cannot meet our pain with compassion. It takes courage to contemplate our reactions, especially our deeply ingrained negative tendencies, and to use the tools of self-inquiry. It’s a positive way out of our suffering and into living fully and authentically.
©2021. Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.