Part 2: The Story of Hanna: How Self-Compassion Can Foster Healthy Relationships

This article is part two of a series of how self-compassion can foster healthy relationships. In Part 1, we looked at the role mindfulness (one of three components of self-compassion) can play in helping us go from being stuck in an unhealthy relationship to building a more satisfying relationship. 

In this post we will look at how the other two components of self-compassion—common humanity and kindness—also played a role in how self-compassion led to a healthier relationship for Hanna.

For Hanna, learning to see herself and knowing how to return to safety gave her the courage to let her partner know what was truly happening for her.

Hanna utilized mindfulness to see her relationship patterns, and to ground herself in safety when fear or anger overwhelmed her. For Hanna, learning to see herself and knowing how to return to safety gave her the courage to let her partner know what was truly happening for her. Where before she would angrily blast her partner for not considering her needs, she was now able to calmly let him know that she didn’t feel like being intimate with him, for example, because she didn’t feel seen when he committed them to going to his parents’ house without checking to be sure it was okay with her first—especially since she’d expressed how difficult this was for her many times. And she was able to ask for what she needed—could he just make a habit of letting his parents know he needed to check with her first to be sure?

And Hanna began to see her partner more clearly too.  She could see how deflated he became when she got angry with him, and how he avoided her and what she was saying in an effort to avoid feeling like a bad person.  She could see that the way she blasted him fed an underlying insecurity in him, and actually made it more likely that he would make plans without considering her – since he felt whatever he did would never be enough to please her.  

She could see that just like her he longed to be loved and accepted, and that out of the fear that he would never get it right in her eyes he avoided her.  She saw that just as her blasting him wasn’t actually a reflection of how much she loved and cared about him, his avoiding her wasn’t actually about how much he loved and cared about her either.  It was simply a clue that he was caught in his threat/defense system and worried that he wouldn’t be loved. 

Common humanity says we all belong and we all matter. 

Hanna landed in common humanity – the second component of self-compassion.  Neff describes isolation as the opposite of common humanity.  I see common humanity along a spectrum of belonging.  On one end we feel isolated “it’s just me”, but on the other end, we leave ourselves out of the picture as we focus on others, “It’s just others”.  Common humanity says we all belong and we all matter. She began to see how both of them had been focusing only on her partner.  He focused on what he wanted, and she focused on how he’d let her down.  No one was focusing on her.  

She began to see that our shared human condition means that we are vulnerable to feeling rejected, unloved, undesirable and so on.  She also began to understand how because they were so important to each other the fear of being rejected was more likely to trigger their threat/defense systems.  After all, it didn’t matter if the cashier at the grocery store liked them, but the possibility of being rejected by someone that was so important to them was terrifying.  And that very terror meant they each behaved in ways that made it less safe for their partner to be close to them. Holding that in the context of how we humans are wired this way with common humanity, Hanna was able to stay out of shame and blame and instead she softened.  

She found herself validating, comforting, and soothing herself.  She gently gave herself what she had been longing to hear from him, “I’m so sorry he didn’t consider you – that’s really painful.  Things like this happen in relationships. Just like me he behaves unskillfully at times.  Just like me, he loves me – even though that wasn’t a loving action.  I see you, you matter to me, I’ll be there for you – especially when others fail you.”   And she found more strength and equanimity.  

Knowing that his failure to consider her wasn’t about how much he loved her, but was actually a sign of his own fears of being unlovable and not being able to please her softened her heart toward him as well.  She still stood up for herself.  She still let him know when she’d been injured and what she needed.  But she was also able to be curious with him about what was happening for him when he agreed to get together with his mother, for example.  And because it came from a place of care and a desire to understand, he was eventually able to share with her how afraid he was of disappointing his mother – as he had been his whole life.  She found herself on his team then.  She wanted to support his desire to stand up for himself.  She had arrived in kindness – the third component of self-compassion.  Kindness for herself, and kindness for her partner.  Neff names self-judgment or self-criticism as the opposite of kindness.  I see kindness as along a spectrum of warmth.  On one end of the spectrum is the coldness of harsh judgment, and on the other end is self-indulgence or placating in relationships.  It’s this sugary sweet kind of warmth that feeds our misgivings about compassion. Kindness sits in the middle of the spectrum and takes a longer-term view of what is kind.  Rather than getting caught in what would bring us pleasure in this moment, it looks at what fosters well-being in the long run. Hanna saw how over-accommodating to him, while leaving herself out of the picture wasn’t actually kind and didn’t foster well-being. So she said what she needed rooted in kindness and she made space for what he needed too. And gradually over time, the relationship became safer and safer.  They each became more vulnerable with each other. They felt more connected and really grateful for this new way of being in relationship.  

Whether it is with a sibling, a parent, a dear friend; whenever we are close to someone it is easier for threats to our relationship to foster unskillful behavior.  Self-compassion helps us find our way back to safe connection. 

On my end of things, it was a pleasure to witness.  I’ve seen it many times, and it isn’t always with a partner- one doesn’t have to be in a romantic relationship for self-compassion practice to help us improve our relationships.  Whether it is with a sibling, a parent, a dear friend; whenever we are close to someone it is easier for threats to our relationship to foster unskillful behavior.  Self-compassion helps us find our way back to safe connection.  It doesn’t always happen this way, of course.  For whatever reason, sometimes our loved ones just can’t open and meet us where and how we need them to.  Luckily, self-compassion is there for us in those times too.  It gives us the courage to leave relationships that have become unsafe and offers us the comfort and validation to help us through our loss.  Knowing that no matter who else lets us down, there is a part of us that can love us through our difficulties in life fosters a resilience in us that gives us the courage to show up in our relationships just as we are.  Without the vulnerability of showing up as we are, we’ll never feel truly loved; with self-compassion, we give ourselves the courage and resilience to open the door to showing others who we are and the possibility of discovering we are loved just as we are.

Excerpted from Compassion for Couples: Building the Skills of Loving Connection by Michelle Becker. © 2023 The Guilford Press.  Reprinted with permission from The Guilford Press.

Michelle Becker, MA, LMFT, MSC Teacher and a marriage and family therapist in private practice in San Diego, is dedicated to helping people thrive in healthy, well-connected relationships. She is the developer of the Compassion for Couples program and cofounder of Wise Compassion. She is also a cofounder of the teacher training program at the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion and a senior teacher of Compassion Cultivation Training. Through workshops, online education, and a podcast, she shares the knowledge and tools required for people to relate to each other better. 

CMSC would like to thank ​Michelle and Wise Compassion ​for their CMSC fundraising efforts and donating to CMSC a portion of all proceeds ​of their upcoming “Compassion for Couples” ​course starting July 16, 2023, which helps CMSC live its mission and bring self-compassion to more people in need around the world. Learn more.

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