The other day I found myself bickering with my partner about driving. After a minor error which caused me to feel fearful, I spat out biting criticism. Then, in an often practiced stance, I retreated into sullen tension and silence. Not a pretty scene, I know. But after some breathing and a kind and compassionate invitation to examine this pattern, I realized that underneath all of this bluster and stubbornness was a deep fear of being vulnerable. Imbedded in this experience was the belief that turning toward my partner and exposing my fear and vulnerability would show my weakness. The stubborn fighting stance was a defense against my raw and exposed self. As my partner and I continued to talk intimately about this experience, I felt a softening and arising of compassion for the vulnerability in me that felt the need to put up such a strong fight.
In his book, The Wise Heart, Kornfield examines the process of socialization that teaches us to defend our hearts. Some people have very difficult upbringings while others are inundated with societies images of what is acceptable and desirable. Whatever the roots, many of us dance with the notion that we are not good enough or that we don’t truly belong. To defend against this, we cover our hearts and build defenses. We find ourselves engaged in a battle either internally or externally to protect against the vulnerability that exists within us. We might see self-criticism and shame arise within ourselves and anger, mistrust and distance arise in our close relationships.
How do we work our way out of this hardening of our hearts? It has long been understood by Buddhist teachings that compassion is the antidote to armoring our hearts and losing our tenderness. When we are able to turn toward our own shame and fear with compassion, it paves the way for developing compassion for others. The ability to stay with moments of pain and vulnerability in a compassionate way is the face of true courage. It is when someone we love dies or our children are having trouble that it takes courage to resist the urge to harden and turn away.
Many may shy away from the word compassion, thinking that it means that we are weak and always feeling the pain of everyone we meet. But, compassion, as it is described in Buddhist psychology is a circle that includes all beings, including ourselves. It means that we must remember to be compassionate to ourselves as well as others.
For some guidance on developing compassion through contemplative practices and exercises, please visit my recent blog entitled Self-Compassion.
“Every moment of pain is an opportunity either to shut out the world or stand up with dignity and let the heart respond.”
– Jack Kornfield
Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine. She specializes in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.
Please feel free to call the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine for further information 818-446-2522 or email