Self-compassion requires looking honestly and courageously at our suffering, and then responding to that suffering with love. We tend to resist looking deeply, and instead create all sorts of strategies for avoiding the experience of suffering. Without the courage to look and not run away, self-compassion is not possible.
My deep-seated tendency to feel judged affects my ability to truly listen and stay present, especially in difficult conversations. I become argumentative, get defensive, shut down, feel 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, I decided to try something new after a recent difficult conversation, using the self-inquiry tool developed by members of my Buddhist community Nalandabodhi, to deal with interpersonal conflicts. Among the inquiries are 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 honestly to these questions was a real eye-opener for me. In particular, I looked at my tendency to respond defensively when I feel judged. Looking at this tendency directly and honestly brought me to tears, as I remembered how often I felt judged and criticized, even as a young child. I cried for that hurt little girl, holding her with compassion. In the process of looking honestly and clearly, all the story lines, justifications and defensiveness dissolved.
Self-compassion is not self-indulgence. Self-indulgence includes holding on to the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions and reactions. In contrast, it takes courage to let go of our story lines, and look honestly at our responses. An old therapist would often ask me “So what are you going to do about it?” when I complained and said words to the effect “well, that’s because my mother was so judgmental.” My therapist’s response used to irk me, but I now find it empowering.
In difficult interactions, it’s easy to focus our attention on the other person, attributing all kinds of blame on them, and maybe even try to “fix” them. When we ignore our own responses, we miss the opportunity to deeply understand our discomfort, and cannot meet our pain with compassion. Looking deeply at our responses, especially our deeply ingrained negative tendencies and using the tools of self-inquiry takes courage. It’s the only way out of our suffering and into living fully and authentically.
©2021. Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.