• Motus

Shame On You Part 2: Compassion Focused Therapy

Current culture has unfortunately created a very thin line between scientifically proven psychological therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, and pseudoscience, such as hypnosis and primal therapy (the belief that things happening before you’re born influence your life). When I first heard about compassion focused therapy, I was quick to mentally locate it on the pseudoscience side of the fence. I was immediately put off by the word compassion. I have always associated it with teddy bears and cuddly toys. However, this therapy was created by Dr. Paul Gilbert, who has had a hand on a plethora of crucial pieces of psychological research so there must be something to it. I investigated further.

According to Gilbert, we have three types of emotions. We have threat based emotions, such as fear and anger, which are instilled in us to keep us safe. We also have drive based emotions, such as joy, excitement and interest, which motivate us to seek more. These are of course important to become more independent. And finally, we have soothing emotions such as calm, which acts as the balance between the two. Those who suffer from continuous threat based emotions are of course those who suffer from mental health problems and we want to alleviate this. The immediate assumption is that we need more of the drive emotions. So if we're feeling sad, we want to replace that with happiness. Makes sense, right? But Gilbert states that this is part of the problem. As mentioned in last week’s post, society has become increasingly competitive because everyone wants to be happier than everyone else and while this is important, it is creating an arena where the deadly emotion of shame manifests. Imagine a balancing scale. On the left, we have the threat based emotions and on the right, we have the drive focused emotions. If there are too many marbles on either side, the marbles will fall and we will keep restacking and restacking. But in the middle, we have the balance, which is a magnet. The soothing based emotions. Gilbert posits that the majority of people are now either based on one side or the other but very few are paying attention to their balancing magnet. And this is where compassion comes in.

There are two types of compassion. Compassion towards yourself and compassion towards others. Compassion towards yourself is something that seems to get lost in translation. Compassion is not self-care. It is not going to a spa, having a few drinks and demolishing an entire easter egg single-handedly. It is the thought process after these indulgences. We had one child who explained it as being nice to yourself. But it is much more than this. It is teaching yourself to accept that you, like everyone makes mistakes and will make mistakes. It is teaching yourself that you are not better than anyone but you are not worse than anyone. People can appear in several different masks but we will all die. Society will tell us that external factors such as money, cars and houses, will determine our well being, but it is in fact our internal evaluation of ourselves that will determine how we feel. If we choose to contest with external factors, we are setting ourselves up to fail. We are constantly striving for the drive focused emotions but once we experience them, it is not enough. The marbles continue collapsing. So the enjoyment of these drive focused emotions becomes irrelevant. But if we show more compassion towards ourselves and not put unattainable goals and comparisons on ourselves, then we succeed. The magnet in the middle balances the marbles. We lay in the middle, in the soothing focused emotions and we have balance. Still think it's too eerie fairy? Well this is where the science comes in.

When we are first born, we need attachment to our parents. Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is released when this attachment develops. It has also been flagged as the main chemical responsible for love. So it's kind of a big deal. It is essential because it develops our emotional development and ability to develop relationships with others. You know that feeling you get when you get on with someone that you have met for the first time? That’s oxytocin at play. Now if an attachment isn’t formed with a parent, there is a deficiency of oxytocin and this is the rather simplified biological explanation behind why neglected children end up experiencing mental health problems. Gilbert’s research has found that oxytocin works similar to long term memory, whereby it will continuously be activated whenever a similar event arises. This means that a neglected child will experience a lack of oxytocin anytime they are in a situation where bonding is possible because there was a lack of oxytocin when they were first born. So what does this have to do with compassion? Well it turns out that this lack of oxytocin release can develop in people who are highly critical of themselves or not compassionate. Let’s take the example of someone who’s not very good at sport. Anytime they play sport, they embarrass themselves and their negative self thought is something along the lines of “you’re such an idiot! How couldn’t you catch that ball. Anyone else would have caught it but you couldn’t. Idiot”. This starts off timidly enough but over time, there is a lack of oxytocin in any arena where the character has the opportunity to be critical of themselves or whenever they make a mistake. On top of this, self-criticism has also been found to release a greater level of cortisol, which is the stress hormone. So lack of compassion increases the risk of a chemical and hormonal imbalance. And this imbalance can have major health ramifications. So this sounds quite daunting but there is good news. How we self talk can influence the secretion of oxytocin. So even if a child has suffered from severe neglect, compassion can begin to lead to massive physiological benefits. So compassion is not just cuddly toys and teddy bears. It is a hormonal and chemical balance.

And once we can start having compassion for ourselves, we can then stop trying to be better than everyone else and start being compassionate to other people. Compassion for others refers to wanting to relieve someone's suffering. Society promotes this but in a counterfeit manner. We tell ourselves that we are helping other people but either at the cost of our self-compassion or else at the cost of promoting the cycle of this competitive culture. Firstly, people often treat others better than they treat themselves. Take for example, the parent who will argue and argue every morning to make sure their child brushes their teeth but hasn’t had time for a medical check in five years. They tell themselves, I don’t have time. I’m too busy. But why are we busy? We are busy to make sure our children are happy, but our children cannot be happy if their parents run ill. Therefore, we are in a society that is not only setting us up to fail but also not allowing us to accept this failure. This then has a knock on effect because children don’t get enough attention off their parents because they are too busy providing for them. In turn, they children develop the same attitude as their parent by competing for attention and the cycle continues. Secondly, people believe that compassion is determined by quantity of people you help but this ends up reinforcing the competitive society. Look at Facebook. It was set up to connect people and now it is turning people against each other in politics. So remember, being realistic is a form of compassion to yourself. Being compassionate to one other person is all you need.

And there's a complimentary benefit with being compassionate to others. It is stamped into our genes so when we are compassionate to others, a carousel of positive neurotransmitters are released. But yet we choose not to? We prefer to try and better our neighbour than be compassionate to them. A contemporary example of this is the current polarisation in politics. There is so much blind hate between the left and right that no progress is being made. Each side would prefer prove the other side wrong rather than improve their country. If compassion was shown, there would be understanding that some ideas of the opposite parties are helpful and compassion would lead to negotiation rather than hatred. Empathy is the new buzz word you hear in schools today. If children can grow up with empathy and understand how others feel, then they will have a high level of emotional intelligence. But psychopaths in fact have a high level of empathy. Someone torturing another person has a high level of empathy. And the Nazi guards responsible for millions of deaths didn’t lose their ability to be empathetic. They just turned off their compassion. So yes, empathy is important but it is needed alongside compassion to make a positive difference.

Life involves suffering. Everyone and everything will die and while you probably don't want to hear that coming up to the weekend, it's true. Most people are aware of it. Psychologists are aware of it. And people have always been aware of it. Look at religions. It’s the main facet of Buddhism, it is highlighted in Judaism and the Catholic’s main symbol is the crucifix. And the problem is that most people assume the answer to this is happiness. But it isn’t. Instead, it’s meaning and love. If you constantly strive for happiness, or drive based emotions or whatever you want to call it, you’ll end up unfulfilled. Because our biology is designed to survive and experience the threat based emotions, to witness the drive based emotions and most importantly, to love. Not just to be happy. So we need to begin appreciating the middle more. The soothing emotions. The being emotions. The compassionate emotions.

I mentioned at the beginning of the post that the explosion of the wellness community has led to non-research based remedies to mental health problems. On a far more optimistic note, we are also in the midst of some exciting research findings that are scientifically proving ancient wisdom. A prime example is mindfulness, which has always been present in Buddhist culture but is being strongly supported by clinical psychologists today. It appears compassion is moving in the same direction. Mental health has not always existed in literature but the idea that life is difficult and full of suffering has. Compassion focused therapy is supplying the simple but effective solution to this. We don’t always like ourselves very much because we make plenty of stupid decisions. We cause ourselves harm when we don’t need to, we cheat, we eat the chocolate when we shouldn’t. But just remember, you will be useless at times but so will everyone else. We’re not biologically set up to be perfect and neither is anyone else. Stop comparing yourself to other people and just try to be a bit better than you were yesterday. Be compassionate to yourself, be compassionate to others and everything will be ok. Not awful and terrible. But not wonderful and fantastic. Just ok. And ok is all we need.

Yours Sincerely, The Motus Movement.


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