Can compassion really help me with my anger problem? In his recent article, How to Turn Your Brain from Anger to Compassion, Paul Gilbert explores the shifts that happen in the brain and our reactivity when we learn how to cultivate compassion. Gilbert notes, “Attention is like a spotlight—whatever it shines on becomes brighter in the mind. This knowledge can help us build compassion.”
Excerpt from, How to Turn Your Brain from Anger to Compassion: “We can come to understand why and how to cultivate compassion within us, which has the capacity for healing and reorganizing our minds such that we can begin to become the people we want to be—in other words, to have the garden-mind we want. This requires courage.”
As the garage door closes, our teenagers start their drive to school and my husband and I sink into our respective chairs with a nice cup of coffee. Catch a breath. Sigh. I smile at this moment, grateful for 25 years, a wild roller coaster of dating and marriage.
Twenty-five years… the exhilaration of falling in love, learning about one another, painful moments, fun moments, intense loss, small children, exhaustion, moving to new places, difficult job situations, and so much more. We are different people than we were on the day we met.
I sit here and wonder, “How do we still love each other after all these years?” As I look back, I know it has taken hard work to build trust that we will continue to be here for each other.
Trust is Built Slowly
Trust is built slowly over time. During those first weeks, months, and years, we did not know each other well enough to be sure. We had hopes, doubts, and experienced concerns that are common for any new couple:
- Can I trust you to be here for me when I am upset?
- Can I trust you to choose me over your family and friends?
- Can I trust you not to take drugs?
- Can I trust you to work and co-support our family?
- Can I trust you to help me around the house?
- Can I trust you to be involved with our children?
We needed to keep showing up for each other. As the years passed, moment-by-moment, trial and error, good times and bad, we built a relationship of trust.
How Do I Build Trust in My Relationship?
The following are four powerful ways to build trust in your relationship. The great thing about relationships is there is always room to experiment and grow.
- Listen – When my husband tries to understand me, I feel loved, seen, and heard. “Tell me more” is another way of saying, “I love you.” When we first got married, we did not have a clue how to listen to each other, so we tried a couple’s workshop and practiced some helpful listening skills. We still use those skills, and it helps. There are a number of great communication exercises to try. One of my personal favorites is “L-O-V-E Conversations.”
- Gratitude – Several years ago, we decided to add the habit of gratitude to our marriage. I am not overstating the case when I say that this practice alone has become one of the major contributors to our level of satisfaction. I began to notice the little things that mean so much: a cuddle before bed, an evening walk, the bristle of my husband’s whiskers on my face, the sound of his laughter, the warmth of his presence when I feel sad, etc. A recent Psychology Today article affirmed my personal experience. Gratitude makes a difference:
“New studies support the idea that gratitude is an integral part of healthy relationships. As marriages move past the honeymoon stage, couples go from appreciating and loving every little detail about each other to taking each other for granted. Researchers concluded that a nourishing cycle of encouragement and appreciation provides extra incentive to maintain our relationships. In other words, when we appreciate our partners, we develop trust and respect. When we feel appreciated, we feel needed and encouraged.”
- Turn Toward – In a recent lecture, relationship expert John Gottman shared the most important component of trust, “Turning Toward.” This has been such an important practice in my own marriage. Although, I have occasionally missed my husband’s signals, I really try. When he says, “Look at the beautiful sunset,” it is a cue for me to stop what I am doing for a moment and share something that is meaningful to my husband. Or when I say, “I feel sad today,” he has an opportunity to “turn toward” and comfort me with his presence, or turn away and avoid a potentially uncomfortable conversation.
Gottman explains, “Trust is built in very small moments, which I call sliding door moments. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connection with our partner or turning away from our partner. Trust is a collection of “turning toward” moments: turning toward and connecting with your partner, instead of just thinking about what I want. If you always choose to turn away, trust erodes.”
- Boundaries – Creating boundaries around the marriage is essential for building trust. When you talk openly about potential pitfalls, you can create practices that protect your relationship. Let’s be real. At some point, you might be attracted to someone else. It happens. But that does not mean that your marriage has to be put in danger. Talk openly with your partner and come up with ways to be transparent and accountable. When we were first married, my husband knew that he would sometimes be alone with a woman in his office. He purposefully installed a window in his door and made sure that his assistant was present when he had appointments. Shirley Glass, author of “Not Just Friends,” offers a brief list of suggestions to consider:
- Know that attraction is normal. But just because you feel it doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Being attracted to someone else doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong person. One of the measures of true commitment is that you don’t allow yourself to be pulled away from your priorities by distractions.
- Don’t let yourself fantasize about what it would be like to be with that other person.
- Don’t flirt.
- Avoid risky situations. (Glass, 2004)
As I take another sip of coffee, I remind myself that trust is an essential element of a healthy relationship. It takes a lot of work. It does not happen immediately and takes intentionality.
In my next post, I will explore four more practices that have been shown to build trust and have been helpful in my own marriage.
I have two teenagers gearing up to start school next week, and I feel a little disoriented. Transitions have always been a personal challenge, and I have to pay extra close attention to my stress levels throughout the shift into the new school year. The next couple of weeks will be full of lists, paperwork, school supplies, lunch ideas, medical forms, school forms, school clothes, etc.
I used to run myself ragged trying to get everything done for the sake of my family. I would end up feeling frazzled and irritable. I did not realize there was a relationship between my own self-care and the health and peace of my family. Like the old saying goes, “When mama isn’t happy, nobody’s happy!” I learned (eventually) that parenting is kind of like the oxygen mask drill on an airplane. Give yourself oxygen first, so that you can stay calm enough to then put the mask on your child. Likewise, when I check in with my own self-care, I am centered and have more to give.
Over the years, I have tried a number of different coping strategies to help me manage the stress and offer myself a little compassion in the midst of unusually hectic times:
11 Back to School Coping Strategies for Parents
- Remember transitions are stressful. If you feel a little overwhelmed when you look at all that needs to be done, it is okay. You are not alone. When you beat up yourself for feeling stressed or wonder if everyone else seems to be handling things better, it fuels the tension and makes you feel stuck.
- Be kind to yourself. This has been a huge help for me over the past couple of years. When you give yourself a little grace, you give yourself a little space. Compassionate self-talk naturally calms the tension in our body and calms the stress. You build inner support and encouragement when you learn to treat yourself like you would treat a good friend. Try this self-compassion exercise: How Would You Treat A Friend?
- Breathe. Breathing naturally calms the body and brings down stress levels. When I get stressed out, my mind starts racing and I cannot think. Breathing settles the mind and helps get back on track. Andrew Weil has a simple, powerful breathing exercise that naturally calms and settles the body.
- Buffer Time. A little extra scheduled time sprinkled throughout the day can bring down the stress. Get up 15 minutes earlier to give yourself a few extra minutes to get organized, find a missing shoe, or get loaded more peacefully into the car. Leave for school 10 minutes earlier to give a buffer for traffic or any unforeseen challenges.
- Write It Down. Make a list of all that needs to be done, and then prioritize. When you organize tasks and put the most important things first, you create focus and limit distractions. Multi-tasking is over-rated and actually increases stress.
- Practice saying “No.” A new school year includes lists of new activities. When you say “Yes” to everything it can leave you feeling burned-out and frustrated. Give yourself some time to think about how each activity will impact the family’s load. When I feel pressured by someone to respond right away, I often say that I need to check my calendar and will get back with him or her as soon as I can. Then I access how many activities will fit into our life without over-burdening our resources of time and money. I can then respond in a firm and realistic way that puts the needs of my family first.
- Listen. When you get so busy with everything that needs to be done, it is sometimes difficult to give attention to the people you love. At times things just need to get done right away and it is not possible to listen well. Tell your loved one, “You are important to me and I really want to hear what you are trying to say. I can give you my full attention when I finish _______.” Also, give others some grace when they are busy: “I have something I want to share with you and I want to be sure you can hear me, is this a good time? If not, when will you have a few minutes for us to talk?”
- Get some sleep. Lack of sleep exacerbates our stress and impacts our mood, health, and wellbeing. Sometimes getting in enough sleep may mean cutting a few things off the to-do list. However, we may also end up with a better attitude and more energy to get things done.
- Minimum requirements of self-care (MRSC’s). When things get hectic and time gets squeezed, your self-care is often the first thing that gets cut. This is understandable and common, but you can get worn down and burned out. According to Jennifer Louden, “MRSC’s are the basic things you need to stay in touch with yourself, to have a strong foundation to meet the rather constant challenges of life, and to ease the noise in your head. Things like loving yourself with yoga, getting enough sleep, being outdoors in the teasing spring wind, saying no to a great invite because you need time to putter alone. They aren’t sexy, they aren’t earth shattering, but without them, you tend to get all blurry and knotty and resentful.” Notice the little things that make an impact like taking your vitamins, going for a walk in nature, etc.
- Gratitude practice. When tasks mount, it feels overwhelming when things do not get done. It is life-sucking to get to the end of the day without recognizing that what you did matters. Write down three things you are grateful for about the day and share them with your spouse or a friend. Gratitude helps us not to take our life for granted. And, it is a great way to boost wellbeing and marital satisfaction.
- Add an ounce of love to every thing you do. Remember to give yourself and those around you a little extra love in the midst of hectic transitions. The tasks and stressors and temporary and will pass. You and your loved ones are here to stay. A little extra patience, compassion, and love goes a long way!