It might seem contradictory to focus on the self when the genesis of this movement was to combat the despair at an apparent lack of compassion for others. Yet one of the examples that Charli gave in her post introducing the compassion prompt made me think about how people can find compassion for others difficult because they haven’t experienced sufficient compassion themselves. Even if compassion doesn’t require them to do anything, it might feel too big a burden to take on, especially if they’ve been shackled with caring for others when they were desperately in need of care themselves.
The Compassionate Mind Foundation was established to promote well-being through the scientific understanding and application of compassion. Paul Gilbert and his colleagues have developed a therapeutic approach for people with complex and challenging psychological difficulties, especially those linked to high levels of shame and self-criticism. While many psychotherapies promote self-acceptance, this is the only one of which I’m aware which explicitly teaches self-compassion. While only those who have been suitably trained can practice the therapy, its principles – especially in providing a framework for understanding how any of us might struggle with self-compassion – are worthy of wider consideration.
Research from neuroscience postulates three distinct but interrelated systems within the brain for processing emotional experience: one pursuing the achievement of goals; another focused on avoiding threat, both internal and external; a third concerned with safety and soothing. All three are necessary, but some of us have an overdeveloped threat system (perhaps being too ready with the fight, flight or appeasement responses) and/or an underdeveloped, or difficult to access, safety system, so that we are unable, or slow, to return to a state of calmness once the danger is past.
Some intuitive strategies for managing distress can compound the situation. For example, if I were visiting Charli’s ranch and was scared to mount one of her enormous horses, it wouldn’t necessarily help me to be told I had nothing to fear. Standing there quivering with anxiety, I would now have two problems to deal with: my original fear and my shame at being a grown woman frightened of nothing. Now, Charli being the kind and compassionate person I perceive her to be, would probably respond differently. She might remark that, not having grown up with horses as she has, my fear was understandable. She might even enquire as to whether I’d had alarming experiences with horses in the past, and whether I’d been supported through them or left feeling guilty and blamed. She might then support me to be around the horses until I felt more comfortable, with no pressure to climb on one’s back until I was ready. She’d probably also make sure I knew what to do once I was up there; most importantly, how to apply the brake. Like in this imaginary visit to the Carrot Ranch, compassion-focused therapy provides a framework in which people need no longer feel ashamed or blamed for their difficulties and practical ways, including mindfulness techniques, to overcome them.
Why might some of us have overactive threat systems and underactive safety systems? It might come down to the way in which our expressions of fear and discomfort have been responded to in infancy. The attachment system has evolved to improve the survival chances of our species that is totally dependent on others from birth. Responsive parents provide the experience of soothing and model coping with threat. Parents who don’t respond to a baby’s cry, or do so in an aggressive or highly anxious way themselves, inadvertently teach the child that their distress is unmanageable and that they are beyond help.
Research psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed an ingenious method of assessing whether or not an infant has developed secure attachments. In the Strange Situation, babies play in a comfortable room until, at a given signal, the mother leaves. What distinguishes securely from insecurely attached infants, is not how they behave when the mother (or other primary carer) leaves, but whether they are able to settle on her return.
I hope this post hasn’t been too heavy, or perhaps it’s a welcome respite from another novel review? I’ve touched on attachment theory in some other posts and no doubt will do again. Your response to this will help to shape that. In the meantime, if you want to discover more, I recommend Sue Gerhardt’s book, Why Love Matters.