“The supreme happiness in life consists in the conviction that one is loved.”
I know this to be true from my own personal experience, from my psychotherapy practice
working with individuals, couples, and families, and from the research on well-being and
relationships. Generally speaking, being safely connected to others benefits us. Healthy
relationships translate into better physical health, and better recovery from health problems. A good connection between patients and their therapists is one of the biggest predictors of a good outcome in psychotherapy. Workplaces high in compassion have better outcomes, including higher productivity. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, we just have to feel loved and connected to others.
In my work as a therapist and a compassion teacher, I often see the opposite- a supreme
unhappiness from the conviction that one is unloved (and sometimes unlovable). Hanna (not her real name) was a good example of this. My first session with Hanna left me feeling a bit exhausted. For 50 minutes her anger at her partner blasted into every nook and cranny in my office as she detailed all of his character flaws. The most egregious of these flaws appeared to be that he never took her needs into account. That seemed to be at the root of her many stories of how she’d been overlooked and injured. She railed against his behavior. How could he just overlook her?! Everything in their lives seemed to revolve around his needs. I could see that she was angry and had been hurt. I wondered what that was like for her. What the effects of not having been seen and considered were for her. She had no interest in going there. She didn’t want to talk about her own experience. She didn’t want to talk about the fact that she was angry. When asked, she’d immediately head right back to detailing how he had wronged her. She was incensed and insisted that he needed to change.
“It’s like that old joke, “How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to want to change.”
This is a tricky situation for a therapist. It’s like that old joke, “How many therapists does
it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to want to change.” It’s not uncommon for our patients to want us to change their parents, siblings, partners, children, colleagues, and others in their lives. Beyond the fact that we don’t actually have the power to change other people, we can only work with those who are actually in the room. Hanna was here for individual therapy. Her partner had no interest in couples therapy. Beyond hearing her and validating that those situations would indeed be difficult to tolerate, continuing to discuss how her partner was a bad person in her eyes wasn’t actually going to be helpful to Hanna. And she was determined that was exactly what we would be doing. What I knew was she needed to be seen. What she needed from her partner—to be seen and to matter—needed to happen in our session. I needed to see her and care about her so that she could begin to see and care about herself. What was exhausting about that first session was that her determination to focus on her partner was blocking Hanna from getting what she actually needed.
“Your partner may indeed be all those things. I don’t know; I haven’t met him. But there is someone on the other side of things that is really hurting and yet isn’t getting any attention—no attention from your partner and no attention from us either. And that person is you.” She was stunned. There it was in full color.“
When our second session started out in just the same way, I knew I had to try
something different. At some point I was able to say, “Your partner may indeed be all those things. I don’t know; I haven’t met him. But there is someone on the other side of things that is really hurting and yet isn’t getting any attention—no attention from your partner and no attention from us either. And that person is you.” She was stunned. There it was in full color.
We were ignoring her too. Even here, in her private therapy session, her partner was getting all of the attention. The anger melded into sadness, and Hanna, at long last, entered the room for the first time.
We could now explore how awful it felt to want to be seen and to feel unseen, time and
again. We looked at how unsafe that was for her. Her vulnerability was palpable. With anger, she had a protective shield that kept her from knowing and feeling what a vulnerable situation she was in. As we looked more deeply at her experience, she noticed how it was actually bigger than this one relationship. Most of her relationships were characterized by her focus on others to the exclusion of herself. In fact, the root of this seemed to be that as she grew up no one seemed to see or consider her. She could remember her father saying, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” The way she learned to survive was to be alert to what others needed and behave in ways that were less likely to make her parents unhappy (and make her unsafe). This was indeed the best strategy for her in childhood. But in adulthood, this pattern kept her from seeing and tending to her own needs and left her vulnerable to being subsumed by others’ wants and desires. She was so angry because she’d endured a lifetime of being marginalized.
“Only by opening to and seeing her own experience was she going to be able to improve her situation.“
Only by opening to and seeing her own experience was she going to be able to improve
her situation. She had to start looking out for herself. She needed to move from her childhood position of longing to be seen by others so that they would tend to her needs and keep her safe into her own sense of agency. She needed to begin to be able to see herself so that she could tend to her needs and keep herself safe, even when others weren’t able to do so for her. She needed to move from the question “Can you see me?” to the question “What is happening for me right now?”
This is the first of three steps in finding self-compassion, which I’ll focus on in this blog
post. Dr. Kristin Neff, the pioneering self-compassion researcher, and co-founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, along with Dr. Christopher Germer, operationalized self-compassion as having three components that must be present simultaneously for self-compassion to blossom. She names mindfulness as the first component and notes that it differs from rumination or over-identification. How when difficulties arise, our field of vision narrows to just that problem and we fixate on it, turning it over and over again in our minds. I like to think of mindfulness as along a spectrum. If over-identification is on one end, at the other end of the spectrum we are unaware of our experience, as was Hanna. She was aware that she was angry, but just barely. Most of her attention was going to how bad her partner was. She actually spent very little time being curious about or understanding how she was feeling.
It makes sense, because she learned to survive her childhood of being unseen and
unsafe by becoming somewhat invisible. She survived by not noticing her own pain. And now, when she did let herself know how painful it was for her, the pain felt unbearable. Initially, she felt powerless to change her situation, so not noticing was a kind of numbing for her. But this was really left over from her childhood, when she was powerless to change her situation. Now that she was an adult, she had the power to change her situation, although doing so would be difficult. What she needed was to claim that power through the clarity that comes when we open to and become curious about our own experience. Without being aware of the damage her marriage was doing to her, she would remain stuck and powerless to change it. In not seeing how she was feeling—a strategy from childhood to seek safety and avoid being in the threat/defense system—she was actually stuck in a relationship that chronically triggered her threat/defense system.
When Hanna began to open to and experience her anger, rather than just fixate on how
bad her partner was, she began to get familiar with how anger felt in her own body. Her body got hot, her heart beat faster, and she was filled with energy. She could feel the power in the anger, and she was a little afraid of it too. Afraid that she would be destructive with her anger, as her parents sometimes had been with theirs. This realization was the beginning of Hanna’s starting to reclaim a part of herself that had been forbidden.
In the beginning, as anger and its underlying fear arose for Hanna she often began to
feel overwhelmed. When she did, we would stand together, shoulder to shoulder, as we looked at the tree outside my window. Hanna would describe the color and shape of the leaves, the texture of the bark, and so forth in great detail, and as she did her physiology would settle and she’d feel better. It was remarkably fast, often within only a minute or two. Hanna was using a concentrative awareness strategy by narrowly focusing her attention on the tree. Over time it became less scary for her to look at and be with the anger and underlying fear because she began to trust that she could find safety again simply by practicing looking deeply at things in nature.
“Narrowing our focus to something outside of ourselves allows our physiology to settle.”
Narrowing our focus to something outside of ourselves allows our physiology to settle.
Practicing this over and over can give us the confidence and resources to begin to open more fully to our situation, because we know how to settle and calm when life feels overwhelming.
When we feel safe, we can open our awareness more broadly and become curious about our relational patterns. We can shift our attention to our partners and what is happening with them. We can shift our attention to ourselves and what is happening within us. And we can also shift our attention to see the relational patterns of how we interact with each other. We see how our own tendency to get defensive, critical, or controlling gets in the way of safety for our partners, ourselves, and our relationships. We see how we are actually getting in the way of what we want in our relationships. And when we see our patterns more clearly, we often begin to see the path forward more clearly.
“And when we see our patterns more clearly, we often begin to see the path forward more clearly.“
When we toggle back and forth this way, opening to the painful truth of our situation
and then, if we begin to feel overwhelmed, narrowing our focus to a safe object, we begin to safely open to the truth of our experience and our situation, as we are ready to do so. This sense of safety gives us a new confidence that we can indeed be with what we need to be with.
We can begin to see and understand ourselves. When we can trust our capacity to return to safety, we can begin to become more comfortable with our vulnerability. We can even begin to let our loved ones see who we truly are—fears, wounds, and all. And that willingness to be seen forms the basis for true intimacy.
Gradually Hanna came to see that she could be empowered by her anger without acting
in harmful ways. She also began to become aware of the pain underneath the anger. She could see the patterns of how she had felt powerless with her pain and how she’d developed a protective shield. That shield left her less vulnerable, but it also kept her from being seen and known in her primary relationship. Part of the reason her partner couldn’t see her was that she kept herself hidden behind her shield to protect herself from being hurt. She didn’t show her partner who she truly was. How could she when she herself didn’t know?
When we are in touch with the truth of the situation, through our capacity to see
clearly, we begin to understand what is needed. Knowledge is power. In Hanna’s case, seeing more clearly allowed her to move from her stuck position into seeing herself and beginning to identify and honor her own needs and experiences. She also began healing from the pain she’d experienced earlier in her life—pain that left her with a crooked vision of things, the way the mirrors in the “fun house” distort our vision of reality. As she saw more clearly, she started to set limits with others and to tend to her own needs.
“Allowing ourselves to be seen lays the foundation for true intimacy in our relationships.”
When we open with curiosity and acceptance to our own experience, we also move from
focusing on needing our loved ones to see us to seeing ourselves, moving out of the dependent state we were in as children and into the empowered state of adulthood. We can see ourselves now, and ultimately that leads to having the courage to allow ourselves to be seen, to make ourselves visible to our loved ones. Allowing ourselves to be seen lays the foundation for true intimacy in our relationships. This article is part one of how self-compassion can foster healthy relationships. In our next post we will take a look at how common humanity and kindness also played a role in how self-compassion led to a healthier relationship for Hanna.
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This article is part one of how self-compassion can foster healthy relationships. In our next post we will take a look at how common humanity and kindness also played a role in how self-compassion led to a healthier relationship for Hanna.
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. https://wisecompassion.com/
Join Michelle Becker at Wise Compassion’s “Compassion for Couples” 6-Week Course starting Sunday, July 11 – August 20th, 2023. We’re thrilled and grateful that this will be a fundraiser for CMSC. Wise Compassion will donate back a portion of all proceeds to CMSC, which helps CMSC live its mission and bring self-compassion to more people in need around the world. Learn more or register.