Self-Compassionate Conversations

Published by Susan Gillis Chapman on

I appreciate how the view of ‘we-first’ is streaming into our culture. For example, author, psychologist and researcher Dr. Kristen Neff focuses her work on self-compassion, which ( in the following excerpt from her website)  she describes as including the following three elements:

Self-kindness. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism.  When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.

Common humanity.
Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes.  All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect.  Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.  It also means recognizing that personal thoughts, feelings and actions are impacted by “external” factors such as parenting history, culture, genetic and environmental conditions, as well as the behavior and expectations of others.  Thich Nhat Hahn calls the intricate web of reciprocal cause and effect in which we are all imbedded “interbeing.”  Recognizing our essential interbeing allows us to be less judgmental about our personal failings. After all, if we had full control over our behavior, how many people would consciously choose to have anger issues, addiction issues, debilitating social anxiety, eating disorders, and so on?  Many aspects of ourselves and the circumstances of our lives are not of our choosing, but instead stem from innumerable factors (genetic and/or environmental) that we have little control over.  By recognizing our essential interdependence, therefore, failings and life difficulties do not have to be taken so personally, but can be acknowledged with non-judgmental compassion and understanding.

Mindfulness. Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.  This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.  At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.

Here is a link to more information on Kristen’s work and a test of your own degree of self-compassion,

Compassionate Conversations:

How does self-compassion– or the lack of it– manifest in our conversations?  Let’s explore Dr. Neff’s ideas as they apply to working with the flashing yellow light episodes that arise when things don’t go as planned. The yellow light symbolizes a confused period of groundlessness when we mistakenly interpret  pain as an indicator that there is something wrong with who we are ( I’m unloveable, unforgiveable, unworthy).  In mindful communication training, we create conversational ‘green zones’ where we can listen deeply to these fears and dispel them. With the support of our conversations we can cultivate greater self-compassion and extend this to each other.

1.  Conversations that support self-kindness: Compassion begins with acknowledging that suffering is present. When physical or emotional pain  arises in ourselves or someone else, our level of self-compassion will determine whether to respond with kindness or with hostility.

This starting point parallels the first stage of ‘heartless-mind’, rejecting pain by engaging in conversations that build on complaint or criticism. The social misunderstanding is that if we add our voice to the complaint we’re expressing support for our friend. Genuine compassion is the antidote to heartless-mind.  It boycotts complaint and criticism and instead attends to the raw wound of the pain, simply holding steady and listening with sympathy and kindness.

Conversations that support our common humanity.  The tendency to shift into ‘me-first’ has nothing to do with self-compassion.  “me first’ is a misunderstood belief that we’re isolated individuals.  Individualism is a subconscious feeling of being disconnected that originates when we reject our original experience, including pain.

In our conversations, the dualistic barrier is how we escalate from complaint to divisiveness, the second stage of heartlessness. Divisiveness is the social version of the isolated self. Conversations based on self-compassion use pain as a reminder of our shared humanity ( just like me, other people feel frustrated when they sprain an ankle ). But when we meet pain with heartlessness, our conversations focus on ‘us and them’.  “Those people who run the park service don’t watch out for hikers like me.”

3. Conversations that support mindfulness.  The third element of self-compassion parallels the balance of awake body, tender heart and open mind of our natural communication system. This balance is a natural clarity that neither exaggerates nor suppresses information.  That is the definition of mindful speech, which is gentle. At the same time we are empathic and sensitively tuned into the emotional field around us, neither over nor under reacting but remaining poised in the present moment so that we can listen deeply and openly.

The third ( projecting blame) and fourth ( retaliation)  stages of heartless-mind lead further away from self-compassion. Mindless conversations build on these aggressive reactions when we buy into our own and each others’ justifications for rejecting pain by blaming ourselves or others. 

Conversations that support mindfulness bring us back to the reality of the present moment, which naturally interrupts the acceleration of our reactive story-lines and habitual patterns. Self-compassion is increased when we accept ourselves and each other as we are and make room for the human experience of joy and pain to be met with gentle acceptance and kindness.


Susan Gillis Chapman

teaches part time for Green Zone Institute and for Karuna Training. Susan is a retired Marital and Family therapist who has been practicing mindfulness meditation for over 35 years.  She is the author of the book The Five Keys To Mindful Communication and a contributor to The Mindful Revolution, edited by Barry Boyce. Her website is: Read more about Susan here.