Insights That Violate, Compassion That Connects

From Pat’s and Gary’s Coffee Time 12/16/13

In a recent Couple’s Counseling session with Sage and Anthony, Pat got in touch with some deep childhood wounds and could go into them emotionally. Sage was able to take Pat still deeper into the feelings involved in these wounds. With great skill Sage mirrored back the feelings that arose in herself, feelings that she intuited must have been there in young girl Pat in the circumstances Pat was sharing. With great care, permission from Pat, deep compassion and at a very slow pace Sage “wondered” out loud with Pat how this experience Pat was sharing might have really felt at a deeper place in the child-Pat when the childhood incident occurred. As Sage and Pat met and connected at the level of feelings, a space that Sage created, Pat felt both safe and seen, and from that beautiful container could go deeper into the feelings she had as a child.  Later, Anthony mirrored how he saw the feeling connection between Sage and Pat evolve in this sacred exploration they were in. I witnessed this exchange in silence and could see the appropriateness of my simple but silent presence. The deep work was indeed beautiful to watch – and very healing for Pat and our relationship.

That amazing session was several weeks ago. This morning during our coffee time Pat was again sharing an experience, this time a current event. I listened, and as I did, an insight arose that would perhaps, as it did with Sage in the aforementioned session, take Pat’s experience to a deeper level. Thinking I was being helpful, I shared my insight directly. Pat often respects the insights I get, but not this time. She stopped me in my tracks.  My comments had hurt her in some way and had shut down her beautiful deepening process. 

We explored why, when I had shared what I thought would be such a possible deepening insight that I had assumed could be helpful, that she felt shut down and no longer safe with me in this conversation. We suspect there are many dimensions to this process and that this inadvertent shutting others down or being shut down by others happens in both of us.

Pat said that at that moment when I made my “helpful” insightful comment she suddenly felt like a scared rabbit hiding in the back of its cage. She was frightened and withdrew.

As it turned out I had just returned from the Pathwork graduate program at Sevenoaks over the weekend, and from an experience there I could relate to what Pat had experienced from me.  At the graduate program someone offered me such an “intended-to-be-helpful” insight for my process after I had shared something that was going on in me. I told Pat that I felt violated by the insight being offered to me, though the insight was offered with the best of intentions. “Violated” is a pretty harsh word. While I had not thought of that word at the time, it fit. At the time it occurred I was just angry at the “would-be-helper,” yet I did not pursue my feelings at the time but rather pushed them down so we could go on in class with “more important” things – and of course thereby missing an opportunity for growth.

What Pat and I concluded at least at one level is that such deep sharing, often involving deep childhood wounds, is sacred ground for each of us, and when someone offers “helpful insights” that may in fact be true, we feel objectified in some way. We recognize that while we have been seen on a mental level, we have not been felt at a heart level. What Sage had done with Pat was to feel her at a heart level. What happens at the heart level? When Sage listened with her ears and then allowed herself to feel deeply with Pat the painful experience that Pat had had as a child, Sage was filled with compassion for the child Pat. Sage’s compassion allowed Sage to open her heart to Pat, Pat to open her heart to Sage, and this transmission of compassion was more important than the words of any insight Sage could have offered. Once the heart connection between Sage and Pat was in place (and remember that this is a deeply felt-sense place) then gentle words, including the possible insights, could be shared from that deep, respectful, and sacred place.

So a key missing ingredient for me in our morning coffee time was deep compassion for Pat. Compassion was a prerequisite before the insight could be heard and taken in by Pat. My insight could possibly have taken Pat to a deeper place from the place from which she had shared, and this would have been a more painful place that would have warranted and evoked compassion in me toward Pat. Compassion would have created the container needed for Pat to go to this deeper place emotionally.

I notice another factor in this exchange. Rather than taking the time to love Pat and to care about her wellbeing by creating the container needed for Pat to go deeper, I was focused and more excited about the value of my insight per se. It was as if I found my identity in being the one with the “great insights,” and wanted to connect from this mental place rather than from my heart of love. In such a mental self-centered state Pat became less important to me than my “wonderful” and “brilliant” insights. My own heart had not yet opened to the situation Pat was sharing or to the deeper place I was “offering” so she could go deeper. I had not built the container of compassion required for Pat.

Pat shared how she could also see times when she herself was a perpetrator of such insensitivity and where others were her victims. And I recalled another incident where I was a perpetrator of offering insights without building the container of compassion required for the insights, if valid, to be taken in by the other. The incident happened 20 years ago when I was in a pastoral counseling class at the seminary. In this class we were learning how to listen deeply, which is the essence of pastoral counseling.

We practiced in dyads, and in one practice session I was paired with a woman. As she shared I was having all kinds of possible insights arise as to what her deeper issues might be and where she could go with these. My own life experiences and intuition had informed me in this matter. I thought offering my “brilliant” insights was what made for a good pastoral counselor, right? So I offered my insights to her in the session.

And by her response I could see that my insights seemed to be correct, making me feel good about my “listening skills.” Afterwards, however, I learned how I had not really listened to her at all. As we debriefed the session I was shocked at her response. My “brilliant” insights were indeed correct, but rather than being helpful they had totally shut her down! She was terrified that I had seen her so fully, way beyond what she had specifically shared about her situation. Yes, emotionally I had violated her in our dialog!

As I shared this experience with Pat I could see the similarities in what I had done with Pat during our coffee time. And I could understand more fully why I was feeling so much fear as my “wanting-to-be-helpful” friend at the graduate program this past weekend offered me a few brilliant insights. Instead of being able to take them in and work with them (as I recognized them to be true), instead I was terrified and shut down. I also felt unseen at a heart level, rather I felt categorized at a mental level – a space in my own shadow when insights about others arise in me and I think I have the other all figured out.

And perhaps the same thing happens regarding insights I have about myself. When I share such insights in person or even in these many blogs I sense that my affect often does not match my words. I objectify myself in words and definitions and thereby devalue my feeling self. Too often I do not find the compassion warranted by the situation I am sharing.  As the saying goes, I report on my deep emotional feelings as if I am reporting on the weather.

There was another example of this devaluing of my emotional self that happened last week after I shared my previous blog on groups with my writing group. Several women from my writing group read this blog entry on Groups. I was amazed at their heartfelt response to my sharing in this blog. This is certainly a testament to how loved you are by so many…for just being you.” “How incredibly fortunate all the people in your groups have been to have you in their midst, Gary, and benefit from your kindness, passion for growing and wisdom!” “Now that you’ve explained your ‘group life’ in depth, we have a fuller picture of the man ‘our group’ loves so much.”

Why do I resist taking in such heartfelt warmth? Part of me holds such warmth as the highest measure of my life, my deepest longing, my strongest value, and yet another part of me resists with all my might such values as warmth and love. Why can I not see that I have in fact manifested, inwardly and outwardly, that for which I so long?

I suspect that this is in part due to my interpreting my experiences growing up with Mom and Dad to mean they did not value me apart from my performance. This is a generational thing, they and I being in a long family line of people (German Lutherans in our case) struggling with valuing feelings of love and warmth. I know that Mom, for example, grew up in a similar environment where performance seemed to be necessary for what she really longed for from her mom and dad: love. And she performed oh so well in life! My perception was that what they, and Mom’s mom, valued was performance. So though at a deep level I know performance does not define me, this energy that devalues my highest Essence – devalues others’ love for me, my love for others, and my love for life – lives deep within my being. These are my lower-self aspects.  And I have a negative intention to stay in this place of resisting love as the highest value.  Can I muster compassion for such a man who cannot see his Essence, his love, and the love of others? Must this man constantly need affirmation about his Essence from outside himself? My intention and my prayer are that I might break this family chain with my own children, with Pat, and with so many others in my life, as we come to love and be loved simply because we are.

Shared in love, Gary