Praxis Blog

Improving Relationships With Self-Compassion

The following is an excerpt from Insecure in Love by Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

If you find it hard to be compassionate toward your own struggles, then you need to develop compassionate self-awareness. Each part of compassionate self-awareness provides an essential element to getting unstuck. 

To review, the main elements are self-awareness and self-compassion.

Self-Awareness

Awareness of emotions

  • Identification of your emotions
  • Conscious experience of your emotions

Awareness of thoughts

  • Objective awareness of thoughts
  • Allowing yourself to see how you perpetuate your attachment- related anxiety

Mentalizing

  • Maintaining intellectual perspective about yourself while remaining emotionally connected to your experiences
  • A reflective stance that allows you to consider possible reasons for your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, as well as those of your partner
  • Understanding how your way of perceiving yourself and your partner might be biased

Self-Compassion

  • Acceptance of yourself
  • Compassionate response to your distress


People high in self-compassion go through times of pain and difficulty just like everyone else. They need help from others; they need connection, support, and advice. However, they have several distinct advantages. They are more accepting of themselves; they are better at nurturing healthy relationships; they can make better use of appropriate advice or feedback when they make mistakes or are struggling with particular problems; and they are more resilient.

If you do not have much self-compassion, you—unfortunately—cannot just will it to exist. However, through compassionate self- awareness, you can develop it and nurture a greater happiness within yourself and within your relationship. If you are not in a relationship, it can still help you to feel positively about yourself, as well as to approach finding a partner in a more effective way.

To clarify how this works, consider Peter. He is a forty-five-year- old bachelor who would like to marry. When he meets Amanda, he is enamored of her and decides to totally devote himself to this new relationship. He pours himself out to her, hopeful that she will accept and love him. He is able to be so open, in part, because he overrides and tries to ignore his fears that she might reject him. With time, however, he is aware that he’s beginning to feel distant from her (awareness of emotions). He’s conscious of being critical of her. He thinks things like, “She can be really annoying,” or “It’s not much fun spending time with her” (awareness of thoughts). At first he thinks that maybe there’s just not enough chemistry. But when she cannot get together with him one night, he misses her desperately, fears she’ll leave, and is anxious to win her love again (awareness of emotions and thoughts). At that point he realizes (with the help of mentalizing) that the problem is not a lack of chemistry between them. He can see that he has instinctively protected himself from getting hurt by being critical of her. With this insight, he can view his feelings and actions as understandable and human (self-compassion). So rather than ending the relationship as he had been considering, he has a new option—to face his fear of rejection. After much support and encouragement from friends, he talks to her about this fear, allowing himself to be truly vulnerable. This leads to them working together on building emotional intimacy—a connection beyond just sharing the details of their lives.

See also: Developing Secure Attachment With Compassionate Self-Awareness

Without awareness of thoughts and feelings, mentalizing, and self- compassion, Peter’s story might not have ended so well. He might have concluded that there was simply no chemistry and broken up with Amanda. Or even if they had married, he would most likely have vacillated between being critical and distant, on one hand, and passionately engaged in trying to win her over or reassure himself of her love, on the other. 

Alternatively, she might have felt a lack of connection with him and eventually broken off the relationship. If he were still unaware of his struggle when she did this, he would have been left confused, unable to understand what went wrong. And if this was a long-standing pattern for him, he might then have questioned what was wrong with him that was constantly causing him to be rejected.

Compassionate self-awareness is effective because it provides a way for people to work with their inner conflicts, as Peter did. If you are extremely upset about some issues in your relationship, you or your partner demanding that you “stop worrying” won’t fix anything. It might even intensify your feelings—turning them into a tsunami that will overwhelm any positive effort to address the problems at hand. At times like this, compassionate self-awareness can help you to understand your struggles and approach them in a caring, gentle manner— ultimately allowing you to nurture the relationship you want.

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