This is a mystery story, one that began several decades ago, with a single tear. The tear wasn’t mine, nor did it come from any of my clients. Instead, it rolled down the cheek of my first therapist as I impassively told him the story of my father’s leaving in the middle of my high school athletic awards banquet. Proudly, I’d returned from the stage after receiving my first varsity letter for soccer only to find my father’s chair vacant. My mother tried to excuse his behavior, but I knew my father had simply been bored and left. I’d grown used to his inaccessibility and absence, a style of parenting all too common in his Mad Men generation, but my feelings this time were amplified by the shame of needing to find a ride home for my mother and myself.
I’d tried to downplay the impact of this experience with my therapist, so when I glimpsed that tear trickling down his cheek my first thought was Whoa, this guy must have some serious father issues of his own. But then something shifted inside me as I suddenly sensed that he was crying not for himself, but for me, for the anger and sadness I hadn’t allowed myself to feel in a long time. Soon I began to sob until the tears were gradually replaced by a sense of deep peace and connection. My therapist and I didn’t talk much afterward about what that tear was about, but as I walked home, the warm summer night felt different, like a loving embrace.
For many years, I had no language to describe what had happened or how it seemed to awaken something I’d never before known inside myself, altering the most immediate sense of what it meant to be me. And for years afterward, when I’d find myself lost or adrift, I’d return to that moment and feel a sense of kindness toward myself, however vague it was, which gave me hope for myself and for the profession I was beginning to learn about.
When I first started practicing psychotherapy, I began to meet with a group of colleagues, most of whom were psychodynamically oriented, who were developing their personal mindfulness practices and wondering how best to introduce the benefits of mindfulness meditation to clients. Most of us had already realized that, generally speaking, our clients didn’t come to therapy for instruction in meditation techniques and resisted it if we offered it directly. Rather, they were seeking to be heard and understood in a different way, and the less mention of formal mindfulness practices, the better. Perhaps the way to teach mindfulness was to offer our clients the potentially transformative experience of being listened to in a deeper, more mindful way, through our therapeutic presence---being open to what was arising in the present moment, physically, mentally, emotionally, and relationally.
I remember the excitement of beginning to explore this therapeutic pathway and thinking that it might offer the solution to the mystery of what exactly had opened up in me when my first therapist had shed that tear. Certainly, he’d been more present with me than I was being inside myself, and I became intent on being more fully present with my clients in a similar way.
Paul, for example, came to see me after his girlfriend had unceremoniously dumped him. In our work together, he’d taken care to understand his ex-girlfriend’s motivation and how she’d struggled in the relationship. On this day, however, he was ranting about how she’d manipulated him and cast him out of her life “like a sack of stinking fish.” As he spoke, I felt my abdomen tense up and noticed myself becoming annoyed with him. I felt the impulse to argue that his ex-girlfriend couldn’t possibly have been so deliberate about manipulating him, but I knew that would’ve led to an empty, unproductive struggle. I realized that the best way to get unstuck from his rant was by using my own sense of presence to help him become more present to what was happening inside him.
I checked in with my experience of our interaction, felt his anger and frustration in my body, and realized that I was feeling the same things: we were in an emotional contagion. “Are you feeling angry today?” I asked. “I wonder if you’re finally allowing yourself to be angry.” Taken off guard, he quietly agreed, and the tone of the session changed completely. The potential standoff between us shifted into an opportunity to explore together how Paul’s allowing himself to feel the full pain of this breakup could expand his awareness of what had happened and the possibilities he might discover in future relationships.
Through the Eyes of Self-Compassion
Definitions of a highly subjective state of mind like compassion can sometimes become murky and abstract. That’s why I prefer the simple Buddhist definition: “When love meets suffering and stays loving, that’s compassion.” Compassion is a deep feeling for a suffering individual with the wish and effort to alleviate it. And self-compassion is compassion directed toward oneself; it means treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding with which we’d want to treat someone we truly love.
Mindfulness, as it’s typically understood nowadays, focuses on closely observing moment-to-moment experience, whereas compassion focuses on an inner relationship to the experiencer---our often-beleaguered sense of self. When we’re overwhelmed with intense and disturbing emotions, such as shame, just noticing what’s happening is often not enough. We need to embrace ourselves. While mindfulness tells us, “Hold your suffering in spacious awareness,” the wisdom of self-compassion says, “Be kind to yourself when you suffer.” Self-kindness opens a new path to healing. Warmth creates space. Mindfulness invites us to ask, “What am I experiencing right now?” Self-compassion invites us to ask, “What do I need right now?”
The Promise of Self-Compassion
With the rapid proliferation of new therapies for every possible difficulty in life, it often seems that we’re trying to do the impossible---eliminate basic human suffering. But suffering doesn’t seem to go away, no matter how many therapies or self-help strategies we employ. Most of us die with our neuroses intact. As meditation teacher Rodney Smith says, “All techniques are destined to fail.” So what’s left for therapists to do if we accept this proposition? Perhaps our capacity to be truly therapeutic begins when compassion takes center stage.
This blog is excerpted from “Inside the Heart of Healing." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!