Relationship problems? How compassion can help.

Relationship problems? How compassion can help.

Relationship problems? How compassion can help.

Relationships aren't Easy

By nature, humans encounter difficulty when they interact with others (and with themselves for that matter!). It is impossible for two individuals to have a completely drama-free, no-conflict relationship, not to mention, it would be rather dull. One of the most important things that happen in therapy is the work of learning to interact with others in more authentic and healthy ways. Expressing needs, creating good boundaries, and finding health in a relationship is important and sometimes difficult work.

From Unconditional Love to Full Battle Mode

If you think about all of the relationships in your life, you can probably rank them in a rough order based on how easy or how difficulty they are. Perhaps on one end are the “easy” relationships – the ones that seem closest to unconditional love for you. Maybe a very kind and wonderful grandmother comes to mind, or your child or pet. These are the relationships where things are easiest, where conflict is minimal and reconcilation is quick. These people are easy to love.

On the other end of the spectrum are the people who have hurt you, who continue to hurt you, or whom you have hurt. These are the people who bring up difficult feelings – anger, sadness, regret, bitterness. You may be in active conflict with these people or you may have withdrawn as a way to avoid dealing with them. Regardless, they take up a lot of energy and resources for you.

And in the middle are the people who perhaps you have disconnected from or take for granted.. Maybe there is a yearning to strengthen and mend the relationship and reach out. These relationships may bring up softer feelings of sadness and regret, or also possibly yearning, fondness and well-wishes.

Your Relationship to Yourself

Your relationships falll somewhere on this continuum and interestingly, so do you. Perhaps you have a good relationship with yourself – you believe in yourself, have a sense of peace and trust in yourself, and feel pretty content with you are. Or perhaps you really do despise yourself, wish you could be a million other things than the person that you are. The voice of your inner critic is loud and directive, your faults are magnified and your talents diminished. Or maybe you fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

How Do You Make These Relationships Better?

Of course, much of what I describe is the work of good therapy. Stenghthening healthy relationships, repairing damaged relationships, and fostering more authentic interactions is what therapy is all about. But is there anything you can do on your own that can help? There is! It is a meditation practice known as tonglen. 


Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice for cultivating compassion. The work involves becoming open to the less pleasant and more difficult aspects of relationships, as well as the more easy and pleasurable aspects. You may or may not embrace the Buddhist tenants that are the foundation of the practice but tonglen works just as well if you look at it as a simple but powerful exercise for changing your relationships with others by increasing compassion. 

The Practice

  • Start with a few slow breaths to center yourself.
  • Identify someone you find easy to love, someone whom you love unconditionally.
  • Think about the suffering or challenges that they may be experiencing.
  • Slowly breath in as you think of this person's suffering, take their suffering in. You can also visualize their suffering as hot, heavy, smoky, dark air. You can also chant to yourself "May ___ be free of all suffering."
  • Slowly breath out as you think of them free of the suffering. You can also visualize this as light, clear, clean air. You can also chant to yourself "And the root of suffering."
  • Now focus on someone who you find more challenging and see if you can do the same for them: breathing in their suffering and breathing out an offering of relief from their suffering.

One way to do this practice is to start with yourself, then a significant loved one, then a friend, then a more distant person, then someone you are in conflict with. See if you can stretch yourself to offer the same love and compassion for the more challenging individuals in your life. 

Some Notes on Practicing Tonglen

Typically the self-compassion portion of the exercise is placed at the beginning, with the assumption that it is often easiest to start with ourselves. However, if you have a strong inner critic, have negative self-concepts, or low self-esteem and feelings of shame, it may be better to start with someone who loves you unconditionally first, and then see if you can extend the same love to yourself.

The overarching lesson in this practice is to wish love and compassion to those you find it easy to do so with and then to stretch yourself to find love and compassion for more difficult people in your life. I find that while this practice may seem abstract at first, when I have used it with my clients (and with myself!) it often puts the other in a new light – feelings may shift, and with that, behaviors may shift. You may find yourself softening your stance with difficult others and considering new ways to interact. You may also find yourself reaching out for more authentic relationship with people who feel distant. Finally, you may discover yourself honoring the people who are truly meaningful in your life. 

There are a number of good resources available for learning tonglen including videos, and books such as Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times 

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