The Challenges and Benefits of the ‘Compassionate Mind’ (Part 1)
By Katy Woolf
What is compassion?
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too…”(Kipling, 1895)
Self-compassion can be an abstract concept for many of us, perhaps because it seems like letting ourselves off the hook, because we feel we don’t deserve it, or perhaps it simply gets forgotten amongst the demands and challenges of our day to day life. But what are the consequences of this, and how can we re-connect with our ability to understand and accept ourselves just as we are, in this moment?
The challenge of our complex brains
As we may be all too aware, human beings have incredibly complex brains to battle with. In fact, we have two very different brains to contend with. We have an ‘old brain’ that evolved millions of years ago and is similar to other animals’ brains. This old brain is responsible for perceiving our environment, for our senses, and for our emotions. Its job is to keep us safe. It is responsible for responding to our emotions in a way that is most likely to lead to the survival of our species. But we have another layer, our ‘new brains’. This new brain has developed more recently, and is responsible for thinking, analysing, judging; even for thinking about our thinking! This new brain reacts and interacts with the messages we are receiving from our old brain, so that not only do we have emotions, we have emotions about our emotions (Lee, 2012). For example, think of a zebra that is chased by a lion. They experience a surge of adrenaline which causes them to run. Once they are free, they are calm again, grazing away as though nothing has happened. Now imagine if we were the zebra, with our complex new brain added into the mix. Once we have escaped and the initial trigger (the lion) has gone, our new brain kicks into action. We fear that it might happen again, maybe we judge ourselves for our response; did I run too fast? Too slow? We ruminate about our experiences, imagine what could have happened, how bad it could have been. Our new brain can play havoc with our old brain!
So this interaction between our new and old brain can activate our ‘threat system’ and keep us in a threat-focused mindset. There are lots of sources out there for our threat-focused mind; the struggle for social acceptance, the fear of not fitting in, guilt, shame, the day to day pressures of life; all of which can lead us into a spiral of critical thoughts and never quite feeling ‘good enough’. We can get stuck in a loop of threat-based thinking and it can be a very real struggle to direct our attention away from these threats. This is not our fault; this is the way our brains have developed over millions of years.
However we have another system, a system responsible for calming the threat system, for feelings of contentment, kindness, acceptance and warmth. However, it can be incredibly hard to activate this when threat dominates. These systems can become very unbalanced and we may live our lives dominated by our threat system. So why do we need to activate this ‘soothing system?’ And what might this look like?
What is compassion and do I deserve it?
Compassion is a central component of the soothing system and is associated with a wealth of benefits. Research has found that people scoring higher on measures of compassion have increased psychological wellbeing (Neff, Kirkpatrick & Rude, 2007). In addition, Fredrickson and colleagues (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek & Finkel, 2008), found that training people in “loving kindness” led to decreased physical illness symptoms and an increase in life satisfaction. By developing our ability to generate a felt sense of compassion, we activate the soothing system and in turn calm the threat system, along with that critical voice that so often maintains our struggle.
So what do we really mean by compassion? We often struggle to really experience a felt sense of self-compassion, and can lose touch with what it really means to be compassionate towards ourselves. However, we are often much better at directing compassion towards others, at understanding what it’s like to feel compassionate towards another person. Perhaps you can imagine the last time you really felt for someone, the last time you observed someone else’s suffering and had the desire to reach out and soothe their pain? This can give us a good idea of what compassion really feels like, and it’s this felt sense of compassion that is so important for activating our soothing system. Perhaps you felt warmth, kindness, acceptance, empathy and understanding for the suffering of this individual, along with a true desire to alleviate their pain. These attributes are the bedrock of compassion, and are essential for activating our soothing system.
Now imagine feeling these attributes directed towards yourself. An understanding of your own suffering, an accepting, warm, non-judgmental, kind approach to your own being in the face of pain and struggle. This is what we mean by self-compassion. And at times, this is where we start to falter. Perhaps you’re thinking “but I don’t deserve compassion”, “this is going too easy on myself”. However, here we need to come back to the consequences of a lack of compassion, of allowing the threat-focused mind to dominate. We are all here in this world, battling with our complex brains, surviving in the best way we know how. Sometimes we can feel like we’re ‘screwing this up’, but we do the best we can with the resources that we have. Imagine a stern teacher with a harsh tone, who criticizes a child when they struggle, tells them that they are not good enough, that they are a failure and must try harder next time. Compare this to the teacher who is compassionate, who supports a child when they struggle, rewards them for trying, who understands their struggles and steps into that with them to find a gentle way forward. Which teacher do you think would help the child to learn and grow? Sometimes we are harsh on ourselves because we believe that this will make us do better next time, that this is the only way we will improve. But when we really think about this example, we can see that it is the child that receives compassion, support and nurturing that has the opportunity to grow and learn. Often we know what we would hope for others, whilst at the same time treating ourselves in a very different way.
How can I develop my compassionate mind?
So we know that there are lots of triggers out there which get our threat system racing, and we know that tuning in to the soothing system can be hard. But we also know that there are some important benefits to turning the mind towards compassion. To do this, we need to get experiential. It’s all very well talking about compassion, but to really activate our soothing system we need to do more than just talk about it, we need to feel it! In part 2 of the blog we’ll look at a couple of exercises that may help you to start to develop your compassionate mind.
Fredrickson, B.L., Cohn, M.A., Coffey, K.A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S.M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062
Kipling, R. (1895) If. Retrieved January 28th, 2016, from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175772
Lee, D. (2012). Recovering Lee, D. (2012). Recovering from trauma using compassion focused therapy. Robinson: London
Neff, K., Kirkpatrick, K., & Rude, S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(1), 139-154.