The Healing Power of Compassion and Compassion Focused Therapy

Compassion is defined as deep, genuine sympathy for those who are suffering, including ourselves, coupled with a desire to help alleviate this suffering.

Research is showing that having feelings of compassion has very positive benefits for our mental and physical health. It is found to put the human mind at ease, alleviate fears and insecurities, and provide the strength to cope with obstacles in everyday life. It generates a sense of altruism and warm-heartedness towards ourselves and our fellow man. So when we practice the act of providing blessings, strength, happiness, and freedom from pain, our mind gets to experience these positive states. The more we care about our wellbeing and that of others, the greater our own sense of wellbeing becomes.

In fact, compassion has been found to contribute so significantly to living a vital, healthy and happy life that many therapists are adding Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) to their practices. I have always included it in interactions with my clients but, in addition, I would like to invite clients to actively participate with me in using compassion both in sessions and throughout their day.

Here is a list of some of the many proven benefits compassion therapy and developing a practice of compassion can have on one’s mind, body, soul, and relationships.

 

  • Improve depression
  • Decrease anxiety
  • Eliminate shame
  • Reduce self-criticism
  • Reduce rumination and worry
  • Decease irritation and agitation
  • Calm the mind
  • Reduce hopelessness
  • Improve body image
  • Enhance well-being
  • Increase happiness
  • Allow a greater sense of meaning
  • Expend connection with others
  • Increase emotional intelligence

Preliminary studies suggest that a  practice of compassion can even reduce persistent lower back pain, migraine pain and emotional tension associated with chronic migraines.

Of course, compassion is not a panacea but these are some powerful benefits worth pursuing in your therapy sessions. Here are five key reasons why.

Compassion is not the same as empathy, sympathy or pity.

These four words are often used interchangeably but there are important, differences between them.

  • Empathy means that you feel what another person is feeling.
  • Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling.
  • Pity is a kindly, but condescending, sorrow for the suffering or ill fortune of others.
    Because of this condescending, judgmental component, pity and its actions do not go
    down well with most people.
  • Compassion is the willingness to not only non-judgmentally care and understand the suffering of another but also the desire to act to relieve that suffering.

Compassion has an action component not shared by the others. The other feelings can open the door to compassion if we recognize that we are not actually suffering ourselves. We ourselves are safe and OK despite our initial reaction to feeling the sorrow of another person. This shift allows us to move forward toward someone’s suffering, giving compassion an element of courage. Empathy and sympathy alone can actually inhibit our ability to take helpful action. We may become overwhelmed or stalled by feeling the pain and suffering of another. It may cause us to shut down, turn away physically or emotionally, or lash out as when a child beats up someone who has hurt their friend.

Compassion taps into the physiology of an innate biological system that enables us to feel and act toward ourselves or others in desirable ways.

An obvious reason to focus on compassion is that it cultivates feelings of love, empathy, gratitude, benevolence, and positive social and altruistic behavior. Being in the presence of suffering, ours or others, is unpleasant, especially when we care about the person. This is empathetic distress when we experience or take on the feelings of the situation. If we move past that feeling by acknowledging that we ourselves are safe, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This puts us in a calming, restful, soothing state that is accompanied by a response from our vagal nerve to:

(1) Inhibit the primitive defensive, protective reactions of stress that arise when we sense
something harmful or hurtful (i.e. all forms of fight/flight/freeze) and

(2) Motivate us to reach out in a benevolent manner.

With these reactions activated we have the courage to move toward and stay present with those who suffer. We become open to positive, social engagement and can act with caring kindness. Doing so activates the reward system in our brain, bringing us a dose of positive feelings. If you are interested, I can explain more about what happens within the brain that makes compassion possible and so important.

Puts the mind into a state of rest.

Given the parasympathetic response, compassion, whether it is directed toward ourselves or others, quiets an overactive, racing mind. When acting with compassion you will notice, particularly afterward, that you were perfectly calm and at rest internally. This happens often to our surprise. It may seem paradoxical, as persons for whom we are feeling compassion are most likely not feeling calm and at rest and the situations they are in are anything but pleasant or peaceful. But when you are feeling and expressing compassion, you are aware that you aren’t in that situation yourself and thus do not need to feel what that person is feeling. When we proceed to feel like we are in their situation, the compassion circuit in our brain does not activate. When we share the state of distress we become physiologically attuned to ourselves and our self-interest, not that of others. In such situations, we don’t reap the benefits of compassion. We may even feel drained after our empathic interactions.

Compassion reduces painful symptoms of depression, anxiety & stress and major psychological conditions.

Research has proven that cultivating a practice of compassion can reduce symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, foster recovery of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the negative symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorders. Due to the parasympathetic/vagal nerve response that compassion engenders, defensive, protective states are diminished in place of calm and relaxed feelings of safety in the mind and body. This makes positive social engagement possible, thus reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation so common in mental and emotional anguish.  Compassion also helps us to put what we’re dealing with in perspective because it shifts our attention away from our own challenges and focuses on the suffering of others. With pain and suffering reduced we are freed to think more clearly and take positive steps toward healing. Research is showing that even people with difficult trauma histories or serious illnesses like psychosis, can learn to have self-compassion and compassion toward others.

Compassion enables us to have better relationships

Compassion provides us with many of the qualities that are needed to connect with others in healthy relationships. As explained above, the compassion circuit in our brain becomes active when we feel safe enough to decommission our more primitive, defensive stance toward the world and shift into an openness to engage in warm and caring social interactions. This enables us to understand ourselves and others better and increases our capacity for tolerance and forgiveness while decreasing anger and bias toward others. Compassion also helps us avoid painful interactions and if needed, mend relationships.

How to Practice Compassion

There are various ways we can practice compassion, including breathing exercises and meditation programs that I can introduce in our sessions. Here are four more direct practices I have found useful for integrating compassion into your way of life.

1) Think of yourself as a compassionate person

A first step in practicing compassion is to begin thinking of yourself as a compassionate person. To help you do this, think of times in your life when you have been kind and loving to someone or to a

pet. Who was it? What was their situation that engendered feelings of compassion? Remember what you said to them. Remember what you did.  What was your tone of voice like?  How would you describe that tone of voice? How was your body posture as you talked to them?  What other things do you notice about yourself in this situation? What did you feel as you responded compassionately?  How did you feel afterward? How did you feel about yourself?

For example, as a therapist, I have many opportunities to be compassionate. I am thinking of a client who lost her husband to a sudden heart attack, leaving her with three young children under five years of age. I remember expressing my sorrow for her loss and for the children. I remember imagining how difficult her situation was and commenting on how hard it must be for her. I remember listening quietly as she told me about her situation and remaining still and quiet as she cried. I notice that my voice became soft and soothing. I was gazing at my client with caring eyes, my head tipped slightly to the right, my posture shifted slightly forward and my body open and erect. I remember feeling very calm and at peace as I spoke to her. I had a pleasant, rewarding feeling after talking with her. I felt good that I had helped this person feel understood and cared about during such a traumatic time.

If you have difficulty thinking of a time when you have been compassionate, think of or look for a time when you have noticed someone else being compassionate. Ask yourself the same questions about that person. Who engendered their compassion? What was the situation that caused these feelings? What did the person say? What did they do?  What was their tone of voice?  How would you describe that tone? How was their body posture as they offered compassion? What other things do you notice about them in this situation? What do you feel as you think of responding to someone in such a way? How would you feel afterward? How would you feel about yourself?

Of course, if you have never had someone feel compassion toward you or never remember feeling it yourself, developing this practice will be more challenging. But our brains are wired for compassion and with the attention, we can activate this reaction, perhaps even from watching for what it looks like in movies or TV shows. We can strive to act in such ways even if it feels awkward and clumsy at first.

I think of a young man who was a nurse while I was in the hospital. He was clearly new to nursing and compassion was also new and awkward for him. I could see that he was trying on the behavior of the more experienced nurses on the ward. Still his tentative pat on my shoulder and his stiff wording aimed at helping showed a desire to comfort me that was soothing and engendered feelings of compassion toward him. Later I overheard two nurses talking about how he was the youngest nurse on their shift and what a good nurse he was becoming.

2) Take note of the types of situations that engender feelings of compassion in you.

Another step you can take to cultivate the practice of compassion is to notice situations that trigger a compassionate response toward others, including pets or other animals. See if there is a pattern to the types of things that cause you to feel compassionate. What do these types of situations have in common?  This common threat identifies the type of situations that trigger a sense of compassion for

you. Once you know this, you can expand the range of your compassion by seeking out other situations that share such characteristics even though the details are different.

I have noticed many types of situations cause me to feel compassionate. Maybe you share some of these or have others. For example, I feel compassion when something tragic happens to someone, especially if it was unexpected or was of no fault of their own. When someone was responsible for something terrible happening to themselves or especially to other innocent parties, I feel compassionate toward the agony of guilt and pain they have brought on themselves through inattention, ill will or ignorance. In general, I have enormous compassion for helpless, innocent creatures, human or otherwise, who are suffering without love and support.

3) Extend compassion to yourself.

All the benefits of compassion are multiplied when we apply to do this for ourselves. Clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert, who is the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy, describes self-compassion as having empathy for your own distress and then figuring out how to alleviate it. It is about being helpful to yourself instead of harmful to yourself,

Many people who are compassionate toward others have no compassion for themselves. Or have compassion for themselves only in very limited situations. Instead, they blame or criticize themselves for the pain and suffering they’re having. They dislike themselves for being depressed or anxious or having illness, pain or problems. Or they blame others and feel angry or helpless, feel sorry for themselves and seek out others to feel sorry for them. Sadly feeling sorry for someone is not the same as compassion. We know that because once someone feels sorry for us, we’d rather they didn’t.

All such responses are primitive defensive coping strategies that leave us without the healing benefit of compassion. These responses activate the internal fight, flight, freeze reactions. Fight as in beating ourselves up with self-talk that leads to feelings of shame. Flight as in isolating, avoiding or diversions like substance abuse, overeating, sleeping away the day or blaming others. Freeze as in becoming immobilized or stuck in incessant rumination and thoughts of “bad me” or “poor me.”  These reactions are not only not helpful; they are also harmful. They add to the misery of our condition, leaving not only to suffer from the condition but also from the rejection and shame for having it.

If any of these reactions describe what you do when suffering something painful, it means you’ve learned to exclude yourself from feelings of compassion. You’ve concluded, most likely unconsciously, that you do not deserve compassion. You may even turn it away when offered by others. Sometimes we treat ourselves this way because it was the way we were treated as children, like the woman whose parents got angry at her for being sick so much or like the man whose father made fun of him for crying.

In view of the benefits of compassion, hopefully, this is something you’d like to change. There are three steps to self-compassion.

1st –  Feeling empathetic toward our distress
2nd – Being able to tolerate the distress
3rd – Working out the best way to help ourselves through the distress

Here are several different approaches for learning to take these steps and offer compassion to yourself.

1) Just Do It. Notice when you are distressed and identify what would feel comforting and soothing to you at that time. Perhaps it could be what you wish you’d received or did receive from a loving parent. It may be soothing words, reaching out for the support of a friend or loved one, having someone do something for you it’s hard for you to do yourself in your current state, or taking a relaxing break, soaking in a warm tub, listening to your favorite relaxing music or relaxation programs on YouTube, going for a walk in a natural environment or doing something special for yourself?” Whatever it is, when you are suffering, just do it for yourself.

For example, I had a client who had a painful chronic illness. She identified that when feeling at her worse she wanted someone, particularly her husband, to put their arm around her and gently hold her. Her husband was not a demonstrative person but one night she decided to just ask him if he would do that for her. She guided his arm around her shoulders and she sunk into the warmth of this unaccustomed gesture. The next time he noticed she was hurting, he asked if she would like a hug. Of course, she said yes.

If you have trouble identifying what would be self-soothing for you, ask for a copy of my list of possible experiences you can choose from to develop compassion and build distress tolerance.

2) Fake it. Sometimes we can’t “just do it” because we don’t know what to do. If that’s you, try thinking back to someone who was acting compassionately toward you or someone else in a situation like you’re facing. Remember what they said. What their voice sounded like. Their posture. The expression on their faces? What they did. Now, imagine yourself as that person. Assume that posture. Put that expression on your face. Use that tone of voice to say the things they said. It may feel fake or uncomfortable at first but do it anyway and notice your reaction to these compassionate efforts. Hopefully, you will appreciate the effort you’re making to care for yourself. Then notice how you feel about yourself (besides awkward or silly) for having tried to care for yourself. We are wired biologically for compassion, so by doing this regularly, it will become more natural to you.

    2) Watch Yourself from a Distance. If you’re struggling to feel enough empathy for yourself to show compassion, try this alternative. It can help you adopt a more objective view of yourself and your struggles.

In your session or on your own, close your eyes, take several relaxing breaths and soften your body. With your eyes closed, imagine you are watching a video of yourself. Notice how the person you are watching is suffering from depression, anxiety or another painful emotion but is responding to themselves with self-critical thoughts or feelings. Imagine this person as someone you love and care about and briefly substitute that person into the video before returning to the image of yourself. What is the person saying to themselves? Be in touch with their struggle – but don’t stay in that feeling yourself.  You’re fine, sitting on the couch and watching a video.

What do you feel toward that person? What would you say to them? What might you want to do to help them? If you don’t feel compassionate right away, assume a posture, voice and facial expression of compassion and continue watching and responding to the image of yourself going about your day. You might say something to validate their emotions, or you may say something encouraging to help them recognize their ability to pull through the painful emotions. Whatever you say, make sure it’s kind and helpful. How does the person in the video respond to your efforts? Then end the video and ask yourself how you feel about yourself having acted compassionately toward your plight. Can you feel more compassionately toward yourself now?

3) Make a Re-decision. This approach can lead to a major permanent change in the way you view yourself and your ability to feel compassion. It involves tracking down how you came to decide that you don’t deserve compassion, then challenging that decision and making a new decision about your worthiness for compassion. This is best done in your therapy session and may take more than one session.

For example, I had a client who didn’t feel worthy of compassion because as a teenager she had become involved in drugs and alcohol for several years and had done many things she was ashamed of. We explored the abuse she endured in her family that led her into addiction and poor decisions. We examined pictures of herself as a child and as a teen. She began it feel compassion for the innocent child she had been. And then for the angry, desperate teen seeking love and affection in all the wrong ways. We reviewed her heroic climb out of addiction and she was able to have a sense of the pride in herself for what she had overcome. She concluded that she was a person who deserves compassion when she is in painful or difficult circumstances.

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I hope this material on compassion has helped you to become more compassionate and will enable you to enjoy the healing benefits compassion can bring to you and others. If you would like to learn more about compassion and get help in your journey toward compassion, contact me or bring up your desire in your next session.

If you are interested in any subject on this site, please contact me.