In my last blog (Radical Acceptance: A Key to Feeling Like You Belong), I wrote about how full self-acceptance is important in enjoying happy, healthy relationships. Unfortunately, most people are not quite so self-accepting; and so their relationships with themselves and others suffer. But this is something they can change.
For varying reasons, many people are so immersed in old patterns that preclude self-acceptance that they don’t even see them – like the proverbial fish that is unaware of the water it swims in. Only after they get to know themselves better, or become more self-aware, can they choose to change those patterns. An important caveat, however, is that approaching themselves in a harsh and critical way can change things for the worse, perhaps even creating or increasing self-loathing. So, to become more self-accepting, people must increase their self-awareness but also relate to themselves with compassion. I call the combination of self-awareness and self-compassion compassionate self-awareness.
Increasing your self-awareness means acknowledging and experiencing your emotions, as well as intellectually understanding yourself. For instance, consider Linda, who feels lonely despite having a boyfriend. With some reflection, she becomes aware that she fears being vulnerable and getting hurt because she has experienced so much rejection in her life. She then becomes frustrated with herself for staying emotionally distant from her boyfriend, whom she sees as a kind, gentle person who would never purposely hurt her.
To transform self-awareness into self-acceptance, Linda must relate to herself in a compassionate manner — feeling sympathetic to her own struggles and wanting to heal her pain. She would clearly benefit from being sympathetic to her situation. Rather than attacking herself with thoughts of frustration (Why can’t I just let myself get close already?!), she could comfort and gently guide herself toward slowly opening up to her boyfriend — and to being in a loving relationship.
There are many ways to increase your compassionate self-awareness. But a good way to get started is with just increasing your self-awareness — even if that awareness includes self-critical thoughts and negative feelings. Pay attention to your feelings, journal, or share your experiences with a supportive friend. Learning to be aware of, and to just experience, your feelings can be difficult; particularly when those emotions are painful. In therapy, I often work for a long time with patients on helping them to “sit with” their emotions. Some ways to work on this ability are through meditation, mindfulness practices (approaching tasks with present-focused and nonjudgmental awareness on what you are doing), and psychotherapy.
As for improving your self-compassion, you can begin by paying attention to how you treat yourself – do you talk to yourself like you would a good friend, or do you tend to be more critical and berating? Sometimes it is easier to be compassionate toward others than yourself. So, you might consciously choose to start being more compassionate to friends, family, or even strangers; and then apply that same attitude toward yourself. Also, just as with increasing self-awareness, you can improve your self-compassion in more structured and intense ways; such as through compassion meditation, mindfulness, and psychotherapy.
If you have been unhappy with many relationships or know you have ‘relationship issues,’ but don’t know what to do about it, compassionate self-awareness can be a great place to begin. You can see how you suffer from relating to yourself in negative ways; and how you have unconsciously sabotaged previous efforts to connect with other people. Most importantly, you can also learn to relate more positively to yourself and others – giving you a reassuring and nurturing sense of connection with the world around you.
If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic, visit the Relationships and Coping Community.