It happened again: an angry exchange between my husband and me that followed a typical pattern. It was, as such conflicts often are, well out of proportion to the triggering event.
You would be right to say I started it. You also would be right to say he started it. It depends on where you think it all began. The truth is we’re both responsible and neither of us is at fault.
We humans find ourselves in this sort of place, don’t we? The place where we get triggered, reacting in the present to hurts from the past. [click to tweet]
I’m sharing this recent experience in order to offer steps that I’m following toward something that can be very hard to find — self-compassion.
How Can We Fix This?
As we spoke, expressing remorse for having hurt each other, and sharing our wish to find a positive way forward, my husband asked “How can we fix this?”
What a good question! It shifts the focus from who did or said what to what we can do. Thinking this through together brought us to a deceptively simple answer. It offers hope but not a quick fix.
The “fix” we identified, strengthening self-compassion, is something I often think about, write and discuss with others. It was time, we realized, for us each to commit more strongly to addressing our struggles with self-compassion, and to remind ourselves of the importance of extending that compassion to one another.
Oh, That Inner Critic
Practicing self-love means learning how to trust ourselves, to treat ourselves with respect, and to be kind and affectionate toward ourselves.
~Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection.
Whatever the reasons — family messages, societal messages, innate psychological processes — we, like so many others, are quick to default to self-criticism when things go wrong.
Over the years our Inner Critics have fed on messages like these, growing strong and agile:
“You are not enough.”
“You are a disappointment”
“No matter what you do, or how hard you try, you are wrong.”
It takes a conscious effort to seek out the voice of my Inner Encourager for more positive, compassionate messages.
My automatic reactions when something goes wrong are not usually self-compassionate. I’m quick to self-blame and self-directed anger. Those internal responses are often mirrored by how I react to those closest to me.
When I’m under more than average stress I’m particularly unlikely to stop, reflect and center myseIf before speaking or acting.
That’s my part in the pattern, or at least it’s a big piece of it. It’s a part I can take responsibility for.
Here’s how I’ve gotten started moving from recognizing this pattern to doing something about it.
Buffering the Impact of Stress
Stress is an everyday fact of life. Stress is any change you must adapt to…All stress is not bad. In fact, stress is not only desirable, but also essential to life.
~Davis, et.al., 1995
I’m starting out the day with a stretching routine I previously did in the evenings. I’m making it an extra-strength stress reducer by incorporating deep breathing, a body scan to relax tense muscles, and by seeking my Inner Encourager’s voice rather than tuning in to my Inner Critic.
Next, I turn to what always helps – writing.
Writing About What Happened
The clarity of this self-reflection [writing], and I don’t mean self-absorption, was life changing.
~ Sandra Marinella, The Story You Need to Tell
Writing with only myself as the audience helped in a different way than talking about it did. I wrote for about 10 minutes in the first person, telling the story of what happened, including what I did, thought and felt. It helped me make further sense of what had happened, and to take another step in sorting myself out.
Then I decided to write a letter from myself now to myself on the day of our conflict. Writing in the second person (or the third person) helps by inviting you to step back and see things from a different point of view.
A Letter of Self-Forgiveness
To forgive others, you must forgive yourself first.
~ Debasish Mridha
I wrote a letter from my calmer, more reflective self to my previous angry and reactive self.
The letter was a way to shift my perspective and allowed me to activate my capacity for self-compassion.
I used honest and direct language, and without denying my responsibility, acknowledged past and present struggles and pain.
I reminded myself that as humans we are far from perfect; that even with positive intentions we make mistakes. I encouraged myself to try again, to identify and practice ways to show myself and others kindness and compassion.
Remembering About Boundaries
The most compassionate and connected people of those I’ve interviewed set and respect boundaries.
~ Brene Brown, 2012
Self-compassion is about taking nurturing care of yourself. That includes setting boundaries and limits for myself and others so that I don’t build up a load of resentment that eventually bursts forth.[click to tweet].
Self-compassion includes acknowledging and accepting the truth — that I sometimes wrong others (which I wish wasn’t the case!). It also means willingly accepting that I am responsible for doing better.
Self-compassion involves kind, caring and even humorous ways to let others know when something they are doing or saying is not acceptable. For this I can draw on others’ examples and also my own, because there are times when I do this quite well.
Why All of This Matters
If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others…If you have no compassion for yourself, you are not capable of developing compassion for others.
~ Dalai Lama
Helping to build a better world, one in which we can be better humans is my motivating passion. Compassion for self and others is vital to carrying out this passion. I and those around me deserve my best.
I’m committing to doing more to attune to my Inner Encourager. I’m committing to working to strengthen compassion for myself and others, to recognize that when I feel least able to act with compassion is when I most need to do so.
Brown, B.(2012). Daring greatly. New York: Gotham Books.
Carson, R. A.(2008). A master class in gremlin taming. New York: Harper Collins.
Davis, M., Robbins Eshelman, E., McKay, M.(1995). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J.F. (2014). Expressive writing: Words that heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Smyth, J.M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down. New York: The Guilford Press.