Self-Compassion for Healthier Relationships

It’s probably obvious that cultivating self-compassion will help you come into a healthier relationship with yourself. When you practice interrupting old patterns of self-criticism and relating to your experience with greater curiosity and less judgment, your internal climate becomes significantly friendlier.

What may be less apparent are the ways that self-compassion can help you have healthier relationships with everyone else in your life: from loved ones and colleagues with whom you may have ongoing interpersonal difficulties, to challenging people you encounter in your everyday life.In fact, studies have shown that people who are more self-compassionate have more satisfying romantic relationships and are more successful in navigating interpersonal conflict.

So, how can being kinder to yourself support you in cultivating healthier relationships? The short answer is that self-compassion helps you have more adaptive interpersonal boundaries. When a relationship is not working well, it is usually a boundary issue.

For example, if you are crossing someone else’s boundaries - perhaps by expecting/demanding something from them that they are not able to give, you will likely feel pain and anger. In 12-step programs, this habit pattern is sometimes called, “Going to the hardware store for groceries.” In other words, you are looking for something in a place where you will not find it, yet still insisting that it be there.

Or, if you are not aware of the porous nature of your boundaries, you may tend to "absorb" the feelings of others. You may find yourself depleted and burned out after spending time with loved ones who are challenging to you or struggling in some way.

The pain you feel in relationship usually comes from either feeling disconnected, or from feeling overwhelmed. Both are challenges that have to do with the space between yourself and others. Being aware of these two ways that relationship can by painful is an important initial step in relating to yourself with compassion. Accurately naming what hurts, itself, can be deeply relieving.

If you feel disconnected from a loved one, self-compassion can help you tap into your own caregiving impulse so that you can offer validation and kindness to yourself whenever you need it. Without access to that capacity within, you will habitually look for validation and soothing from others.

You may be able to get your needs met by others some of the time, or even most of the time, if you have people in your life who are emotionally available when you need them to be. However, at some point, those people are not going to be there in the way that you want them to be. It’s inevitable. Maybe your partner will have a hard day at work and just won’t have the bandwidth to comfort you after your hard day. Or, maybe a good friend whom you’ve counted on has a new relationship, or an ailing family member, and just can’t be there as they typically would.

When this happens, you will likely feel stuck and somewhat bereft. And, you may very likely feel angry (and perhaps ashamed about feeling angry) because the people you count on for support aren’t there. This is precisely when self-compassion can help. Self-compassion practice can help you to identify your anger, and it can also lead you to be curious about the softer feelings underneath, and the needs that are not being met. And it can help you to experiment with meeting those needs yourself.

If you are experiencing the other kind of relational pain ~ the pain of overwhelm, self-compassion can also be a powerful support. For example, if you spend time with a friend or loved one who is feeling depressed or anxious (or some combination), you may find yourself feeling drained and burned out afterward. When this happens, it’s often because you have “taken on” the pain of your loved one and maybe believe that it is your job to “fix” it. This will deplete you.

Instead, you can begin to recognize the impact and relate to yourself with compassion. Recognizing how drained you feel and relating to yourself with compassion reminds you that it is not your job to fix anyone else’s problems. There is a boundary between you and your loved one, and you can offer compassion to both yourself and them, without feeling compelled to solve their puzzles.

In both of these situations, a very powerful tool is the Self-Compassion Break. This straightforward practice was developed by Kristin Neff, and it is a series of nonjudgmental phrases that you can repeat silently to yourself whenever you are struggling in relationship. The basic phrases are:

This is a moment of suffering.

Suffering is part of life.

May I be kind to myself.

May I give myself the compassion that I need right now.

You can tailor these phrases so that they feel right to you. Some people don’t like to use the word “suffering” and instead prefer “challenge.” If you are struggling in a particular relationship, you may modify the second line to something like: “Suffering is part of all relationships.” Feel free to experiment until you find the phrases that feel right to you. You can also click here to listen to a guided Self-Compassion Break meditation from Kristin.