Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Self-Compassion 4: Understanding the Process

Conflict and stress normally unfold in situations were there isn't much chance to really think things through. We react automatically, and our reactions reveal patterns of thinking and feeling that we establish over the years. The bad news is that this means our reactions are often difficult to change, the result of a lot of momentum. The good news is that by understanding how, when, and why we react in these ways, we have already started to change the pattern. Over time, mindfulness and self-compassion will automatically create new habits in us. They, too, can grow stronger and support us to live more kindly and wisely.

The initial challenge is obvious. When it comes to mindfulness during conflict, how do we become aware of processes that most often happen automatically? Typically -
• When we get in a conflict situation, we react without consciously deciding what to do. We find ourselves feeling, thinking and doing things with immediacy.

• Because these feelings, sensations and urges come in this manner, we don't often have a very deep understanding of the actual process behind them.
Self-compassion depends on understanding and slowing this process down so that we can choose how to respond to our automatic reactions. This diagram is a resource for developing our skills.

All of us recognize certain elements of the process from time to time, and we intuitively know that we can use them to explain our feelings and actions. We find ourselves saying, “I was just so tired” (vulnerability factor), “she just doesn’t understand what I’ve been through” (interpretive filter), “he has no idea what that does to me” (trigger event), “when I heard that, I was just shaking inside and wanted to scream” (inner voice). We often have the idea that if the other person could just see things our way, everything would make sense.

Self-compassion means we become conversant with this picture (often unconscious and sometimes illusory) that we have created to make sense of the world. When we understand how changing factors can affect the whole experience, we can choose to respond thoughtfully instead of react automatically. Some things to remember -
• In conflict, each person’s reaction often becomes a trigger for the other, which is one of the most important ways that the cycle of de-conciliation is sustained.
• This diagram is complementary to the empathy model of Marshall Rosenberg known as Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication (more information HERE).
--- Making observations without evaluation is parallel to separating the actual trigger event from our interpretive filters.
--- Mindfulness of our inner voice is parallel to understanding our feelings and needs.
--- Making requests to meet our needs and responding with empathy is parallel to mindfulness of our outer voice.
• It is usually enough to become mindful of only one or two parts of the process in order to activate your compassionate self.
You can practice using the diagram by reading the following story and then guessing what Matthew might have experienced while having lunch with Tanya.
Matthew had a bad beginning at his new job. He felt out of place and couldn’t seem to fit in with the others. One day he even heard a couple of co-workers making jokes about how Matthew had acted at the last staff meeting. Any trust he had left was gone.

When Tanya was hired, Matthew experienced some competing feelings and thoughts. On one hand, he liked being around Tanya and wanted to know her better. On the other hand, he just knew she would turn out like everybody else. But he never had a chance to really find out, since he did his best to stay in the background and out of everybody else’s way.

During lunch break one day, Matthew was eating alone. Tanya came to his table and asked to join him. Matthew couldn’t help smiling and feeling happy at first; he said yes. But as Tanya started chatting, Matthew found himself worlds away in his own thoughts and doubts. “Why is she doing this anyway? Is she just feeling sorry for me? Or maybe she’s heard their stories about me and wants the inside scoop. Yeah, that’s it – she’s just like the rest of them… just looking for a way to get a laugh at my expense.”

Matthew suddenly realized that Tanya had been talking – he remembered answering a few questions about his work – but he had no idea what about. Besides, he now knew the ‘real’ reason she had joined him for lunch and gave himself permission to be as gruff and grumpy as he wanted. It didn’t take long for Tanya to finish her lunch and move on.

Matthew saw Tanya empty her tray and then join another table. Sure enough, they were soon laughing and talking away. Matthew congratulated himself for not being tricked by another co-worker. “I knew it,” he told himself, “she wasn’t really interested in knowing me.”
Based on Matthew’s story, what might have been his experience of the having lunch with Tanya?

You can also use this diagram to help you understand your own experience. You never have to feel obligated to use every part, either. Use what is most helpful to you.