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Can cultivating compassion improve the process of psychotherapy?

Prior to becoming a therapist myself, I spent a significant amount of time on the couch as a client.  I am forever grateful for the encouragement and compassion I received on those couches as the therapists supported my journey of growth.  However, for all of the compassion they may have offered me, none of them taught me about compassion.  I learned about compassion through the Eastern philosophies I studied as part of my yoga training.  As I began to practice compassion consciously, I came to personally discover its deep healing power.  So, when I began to practice as a licensed psychotherapist, I integrated Eastern and Western approaches, and teaching compassion to my clients is a tool I rely upon to facilitate healing and transformation.

Compassion guides us into spaces of acceptance of our limitations as human beings, to embrace our imperfections, and to comfort ourselves when experiencing suffering.  It soothes the inner critic and perfectionist, it reduces the amount of pressure on our overly developed responsible part, and creates space in our lives for more connection, peace and joy.  Until perhaps more recently, compassion – and specifically self-compassion – was not something that was taught to us as children, or even as adults.  So, by the time we are adults, we have been led to believe that the inner critic is our internal motivator to do more and better.  Instead the inner critic partners with the perfectionist to wear us down, telling us we will be enough and worthy once we, and everything around us, is perfect.  That is simply an impossible dream that we are chasing, inviting in exhaustion, anxiety, depression, shame, and isolation.

Through the years of not only offering compassion to my clients, but teaching them to offer compassion to themselves, I have noticed how it has enhanced the process of psychotherapy and made the effects more enduring.  A mantra I offer my clients is that self-compassion is the antidote to what ails them.  Easily said, but perhaps not so easily implemented.  Yet, when clients begin to loosen the grip of the inner critic and perfectionist and begin to challenge the myth that self-care is selfish, they begin to experience relief from their symptoms.  I don’t need any more evidence than that to know that compassion works!

However, for those that might want to read more about the effects of compassion, including how it creates structural changes in the brain, click on the link below for the most recent research in this area.

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Support Mental Health

October is Depression and Mental Health Screening Month!

One of the many silver linings of this pandemic has been an increased awareness around mental health.  It has been a long-held belief of mine that if we spent more time, energy and money on supporting mental health, we would radically improve our health care system by significantly reducing what ails us physically.  It does not surprise me that the number one cause of morbidity and mortality is heart disease, which stems from a traumatizing world guiding us to disconnect from the pain and harden our hearts.

So to build upon this growing awareness and to continue to reduce the stigma around mental health challenges, below I provide intention-setting ideas to support compassion and connection, two of the most powerful tools for resiliency.  It is my hope you will consider exploring and then sharing one as we honor Mental Illness Awareness Week the first full week of October!

  1. Take a Stigma Quiz.  Visit the National Association of Mental Illness’s website here to get a better sense of your own personal understanding and beliefs around mental health challenges.  Consider taking this quiz as a simple first step.
  2. Pledge to be Stigma Free. To keep current on mental health, perhaps visit NAMI’s website here to add your name to their StigmaFree campaign to support turning StigmaFree Me into StigmaFree We!
  3. Ok2Talk.org.  Research has shown that sharing what is going on in our minds that we find challenging to us helps reduce its power over us.  Sharing does not necessarily mean talking to another person directly, although that is one option.  NAMI has created this website for people to post their personal stories anonymously.  Perhaps consider checking it out and either posting your own Blog or sharing the site with someone you know that might benefit from such an outlet.
  4. Stretch your Altruistic Muscle.  Research has shown that doing good can do us good.  The benefits include inviting in a sense of belonging, reducing isolation and learning about different perspectives.  Consider visiting the Mental Health Foundation website here for more information and some thoughts about getting started.
  5. Compassionate Conversations Matter.  Connecting with others through conversation is a strategic tool for coping, especially when challenged with powerful feelings that bring about self-defeating thoughts and self-sabotaging behaviors.  If you don’t know where to start, perhaps visit the CDC’s website here to find resources on how to get the conversation started.

As always, if you try any of these intention-setting ideas for holistic health, I would love to hear about the impact they might have had for you.  Please send me an email at linda@sanctuary4compassion.com to share!

Can practicing self-compassion reduce shame?

I describe shame as that toxic, black mold that grows in dark, damp places that can make you sick when you don’t even know it is there.  In order to get healthy, first we must become aware of the mold’s existence and then we need to invite air and light into the space, because mold can’t survive in the light.  It is the same with shame.  Shame on the surface functions as an internal regulator to discourage us from violating moral and social norms.  However, when small seeds of shame are planted, especially when we are children, it grows just like toxic mold, creating a very unhealthy internal state of being.  From these toxic seeds of shame grow weeds, such as feelings of ‘less than’ and thoughts of ‘not being good enough’.   What if there was a simple internal cleaning solution that could eliminate that toxic shame?  Well, research on self-compassion is becoming the light that is needed to kill off those weeds at their very roots!

When I was little I had a lot of things happening to me that brought shame, including my parents getting divorced and being poor due to being raised by a single mother.  With no money to spare, we found ourselves pulling things out of the Good Will bins, instead of putting things into them, so often our clothes did not fit right (I remember high-water pants before they were a fashion item).  In such a vulnerable place, my mom was taken advantage of by men and I witnessed domestic violence.  These types of circumstances were out of my control, but that didn’t stop the seeds of mold from taking hold and sprouting nasty weeks.  And those weeds, always present, drove my behaviors for many years.

Finally, when my body began to show signs of disease, I realized I needed to change something.  With the help of a good therapist, I was able to gain insight into how traumatizing those events were to a child and how the shame guided my behavioral responses, such as trying to be perfect all of the time and taking responsibility for ‘out-of-scope’ tasks and events.  Add my people-pleasing part and I had the trifecta for anxiety, exhaustion, depression and many other symptoms of trauma.

When I was able to offer myself the same compassion I would offer others that were experiencing some sort of suffering, I began to feel a sense of relief.  My thoughts changed from ‘What is wrong with you’ to ‘What happened to you’.  And I was finally able to move into a space of understanding, opening the door to choice when it came to how I wanted to act in this world.  Offering myself compassion by shining light on the toxic mold of shame opened the door to true peace of mind.  Cultivating compassion has been shown to reduce the negative chemicals (e.g., cortisol, etc.) and increase the positive ones (e.g., oxytocin, etc.) in the brain.  And with this data, new models of therapy are emerging within the field of trauma-informed care.  One of the most recent and promising ones, Somatic Self-Compassion® training is a trauma-informed self-compassion training that was designed to combine interoception (how we feel on the inside) and sensory modulation (adaptive responses to external changes) in order to teach individuals more effective coping with current and past stress.

One of the most recent feasibility research studies utilizing Somatic Self-Compassion® included shame as a variable to better understand how stress, shame and self-compassion might be related.  What this study showed was that combining trauma-informed care with the increased focus on somatic/body intelligence (i.e., interoception and sensory modulation) reduces shame, including body shame and that such training would be a good fit for trauma survivors.

To read the full study, click on the link below:

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Cultivate Compassion

More and more research is suggesting that compassion is the antidote to what ails us as humans, both individually and on a larger societal level.  So, if the answer is simple (yet perhaps not so easy), how might we contribute to the healing of the world that has such a compassion-deficit at this time?

We must first acknowledge that as humans, we experience fear and pain, which open the door to suffering.  Whether the fear and pain are experienced physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and/or spiritually, they cannot be avoided.  It is part of the human condition.  Suffering, on the other hand, is something that can be avoided.  Suffering is a response – or choice – to the fear and pain.  The practice of compassion has been shown to trigger the release of oxytocin, often referred to as the happy hormone.  Any increase in happiness reduces the experience of suffering.

Next, we must consciously tap into our heart space and exercise our compassion muscles to keep them active and strong.  Therefore, below I provide intention-setting ideas to help support the cultivation of compassion in your own life, so that you can spread the happiness around.  I hope you will consider trying one!

  1. Practice a loving kindness meditation.  With the expanding research base around the health benefits of compassion, many sites offer loving kindness or compassion meditations.  Simply set an intention to establish a regular practice of finding yourself in a space of comfort and quiet and listen to one.  When listening at first, it might seem awkward or unnatural, especially when offering yourself compassion.  However, remember that it is a practice and, with time, the effects begin to show up in your everyday interactions.  Don’t give up!
  2. Soften judgment.  The natural human survival instinct creates judgment.  Therefore, it takes work to transform judgment into discernment.  Judgment grows from a perceived power differential.  It is unconscious and reactive.  Judgment is a reaction from fear, insecurity, jealousy or ignorance.  On the other hand, discernment grows from a conscious and more thoughtful garden, where the seeds of clear perception and insight grow.  The flowers that bloom guide us to distinguish what is appropriate and inappropriate, healthy and unhealthy and the choices we make are not only good for us, but often for the good of others.  Through the clear perception of discernment, we can make good choices without having to label ourselves as better (or worse) than anyone else.  So consider the next time you catch yourself making a judgment (He’s such a jerk!), reflecting on a time when you too may have acted in a similar manner.  Sit with the experience and see if you are able to identify why you acted that way.  Was it out of fear or insecurity?  Or something else?  The more conscious you can make the unconscious motivations behind our judgments, the softer they become, opening the doors wide to compassion for others that are suffering, as well as for ourselves.
  3. Listen deeply.  Listening to others deeply is a tool that opens the gate to compassion.  When you allow someone to be fully heard, without interrupting or planning a response, you create a sacred space for them to truly witness themselves, perhaps for the first time.  Most of us, when engaging with others, allow our unconscious, reactive judgment (see above) lead us in the conversation, jumping to a solution to fix what ails the other; however, that simply implies that something is broken (or even that they are broken), often putting them on the defensive and perhaps even shutting down the conversation.  When we listen deeply, we begin to see ourselves in the other, recognizing the common pain we all experience as humans.  When we are able to hear our common humanity, with all of its limitations, we are more easily able to lean into the softness of compassion.  Consider trying this the next time a friend calls and is suffering.  Challenge yourself to simply sit with the suffering and perhaps acknowledge the pain by saying something like “Wow, that sounds really painful.” without offering any fixes and watch what unfolds.
  4. Heal your trauma.  As the majority of the world has experienced trauma of some sort or another, most of us have some work to do in this area.  Be open to the idea of allowing your warrior part to guide you on the journey to discover the parts of yourself that have been shut down or out, allowing them to have some conscious air time to express their need to feel connected.  Until we heal our own internal conflicts from our past traumas, we are likely to hurt others, even if unconsciously or unintentionally.  This work can be hard, yet amazingly beautiful.  So if you might want some support, perhaps consider reaching out to a spiritual or life coach or therapist.  Through this work, we invite compassion for those parts of ourselves that carry the burden of our past traumas, like we would offer compassion to another.
  5. Practice radical self-care.  So many of us were taught that if we take care of ourselves first or prioritize our needs over others, we are selfish.  I’m here to debunk that myth!  It is my experience that most of us don’t even know what are needs are because we are in a mind set of taking care of the needs of others.  What happens if we don’t identify our needs and focus instead only on the needs of others?  We become exhausted, irritable, anxious or shut-down.  We have a responsibility to take care of ourselves first if we truly want to take care of others.  When we experience powerful negative emotions, it is typically a sign that our needs are not being honored.  Therefore, I recommend exploring and identifying your needs as the first radical self-care step.  Or perhaps consider looking up the definitions of selfish and self-care to gain a better awareness of the differences.  When you are able to understand that you can be thoughtful of others AND prioritize your needs first, you are paving the road for compassion to replace fear in your heart!

As always, if you try any of these intention-setting ideas for holistic health, I would love to hear about the impact they might have had for you.  Please send me an email at linda@sanctuary4compassion.com to share!

Is expanding our capacity for compassion – for self and other – the key ingredient in healing through psychotherapy?

Growing up in chaos challenges our equilibrium to seek control, wherever and whenever we can find it.  This is a recipe for our perfectionist part to step forward and take control, driving us mercilessly to do more and better, striving for an ideal that does not exist.  Ultimately, this is a recipe for failure, disappointment, anxiety, depression or worse.  It wasn’t until I learned that as a spiritual being having a human experience that I am limited and flawed that acceptance began to flow in.  This realization did not mean that I stopped striving to grow, do better and be a less judgmental human.  It did mean that I had to reign in my perfectionist part and redefine my goals and ideals.

When acceptance began to flow for my limitations and mistakes, along with it came relief.  I could stop setting myself up for failure and begin to release my grip on unrealistic expectations, not only for myself but of others.  It opened the door to see and accept the limitations of others as a natural and universal aspect of being human.  It also loosened the grip of the need to control, which calmed my overly developed responsible part, creating space for the capacity to simply be.

Part of my journey towards acceptance included work through psychotherapy that encouraged me to confront the chaos of my childhood and the traumatizing effects it had on all parts of me.  I learned that perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels a primary thought that if I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.  Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.  Shame says ‘I am bad’ versus the feeling of guilt, which says ‘I did something bad’.

Having a compassionate witness, my psychotherapist, guide me along the sometimes slow and painful path back to wholeness, was mission critical for my healing.  I came to learn that as children living through adverse experiences we adapt by turning against ourselves, which distorts our sense of self.  We develop self-hatred as an adaptive response to protect our parents, which plants the seed that will grow the perfectionist part and set us on the path to work to improve our ‘bad’ self.

As I write this, my intention is not to blame, pass judgment on or shame parents.  I am in a space of understanding and acceptance that humans do the best they can with what they know in the moment.  However, the child goes through an unconscious development process that suggests:  which is safer, for the child to believe that their parents are bad and they don’t love you or that they are incompetent and the world is not safe OR for the child to believe that there is something wrong with them, that they are not good enough or have something to be ashamed of?  When we can understand that the fear of the loss of the attachment to our parents creates unendurable pain, then we can understand it is safer to turn on ourselves, because it leaves room for hope.  Hope that if we work hard enough, we can change that bad part of ourselves and become lovable.  This process creates the belief that if I can be good enough, I’ll be loved and belong.

What current research is offering is an approach to undoing the damage of this natural adaptive developmental process that is effective and embraced by people who suffer from shame.  It is compassion-focused therapy.  What is being demonstrated is that compassion is an essential capacity for growth, both inside and out.  It is why I integrate a self-compassion assessment and meditation into my healing offering through talk therapy and offer a recording (here) for download for ongoing support.  Having and truly offering compassion in therapy honors the experience of universal human suffering and now research is creating the evidence needed for compassion focused therapy to be embraced by the psychotherapy community.

To read more about where the research on compassion focused therapy currently stands, click the button below:

Compassion for Survivors of Trauma – a New View of Substance Use Disorder/Addiction!

I remember being assigned to read the book by Dr. Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, while in graduate school and simply feeling gratitude, compassion and validation afterwards.  I never believed in the medical model of addiction that describes the symptom of addiction as a chronic disease of the brain, even suggesting a genetic component to the disease, implying that if my parent(s) had addictions, most likely I would too.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the brains of people who struggle with addiction are different, yet those changes are created as a response to the adverse childhood experiences (AKA TRAUMA) these people survived.  And if your parents suffered from addictions when you were growing up, that experience is traumatic to a child!

I’ve written before about the impact of adverse childhood experiences, especially on physical health later in life as well as addiction; however, I felt compelled to revisit it again when I learned of research that found over 96% of the study participants suffering from substance use disorders, including prescription opioids, nicotine, and cocaine, had trauma histories.  When comparing the groups based upon their drug of choice, the prescription opiate group reported more traumatic childhood experiences than the other groups and a younger age of their first adverse childhood event.  So, when you learn about the underlying dynamics associated with substance use, the thought of “Just Say No” to drugs seems crazy!

Trauma comes in many packages and I’m grateful that the new California Surgeon General (Dr. Nadine Burke Harris) is focusing on early childhood, health equity and Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic stress as her key priorities. (For more information on the ACEs Aware initiative, visit www.ACEsAware.org.)  It is time to stop blaming the victims and participate in bringing this information forward in order to educate.  What we don’t know, we don’t know.  However, once we know better, we can do better.  With this knowledge, we can bring more empathy and compassion in our interactions with people that struggle with substances.  We can take extra steps to explain this new research to them, validating their experiences and bringing them hope that they can heal from these past traumatic experiences and release their attachment to something that is harmful to them.  We can empower them to explore various healing modalities, such as psychotherapy, neurofeedback, meditation, hypnosis, guided imagery, and expressive arts, such as yoga, writing and drawing, all of which have been shown to support post-traumatic growth.

To read more about this research, click on the box below:

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Expand Our Capacity for Self-Compassion

Although the holidays bring visions of family coming together, these images may not always bring the joy presumed by the presentations.  Many of us struggle to create an accepting and caring environment when we ourselves did not receive such acceptance and caring as we grew up.  Add the stress of trying to plan “the perfect” meal and buy “the perfect” gifts for everyone and we are setting ourselves up for frustration, failure, and ultimately suffering.

How can we stop this vicious cycle?  We can learn to give ourselves that acceptance and caring during the holidays and all year long!  Cultivating self-compassion has been shown to be the answer for such suffering.  And, although the concept of compassion might be foreign, it is possible to develop it no matter how old we are.

Below, please find five intention-setting ideas to start you on the journey of self-compassion:

  1. Picture yourself as a child.  In fact, if it is available to you, find a picture of yourself when you were little and place it near your computer or somewhere else where you will see it every day.  If you don’t have any pictures, close your eyes and try to remember a time when you were young, maybe at school.  Visualize what it might look like to provide care and demonstrate acceptance to that version of yourself.  What did you long to hear from the adults around you at that time?  Maybe you could offer some words such as “You are perfect just the way you are.” or “I love you no matter what” or “You are so smart” or “You are so good”.  Make time each day to offer this care to yourself, perhaps when you look at your picture or when you see yourself in the mirror.
  2. Forgive yourself.  The next time you catch yourself beating yourself up for making a mistake, stop for a moment, take a breath, and imagine what it would be like to forgive yourself for being human.  Perhaps place a hand on your heart and say something like “I’m sure I’m not the first and/or only person to make this mistake”.  You might consider trying this practice with what you might consider a “small” mistake, where no one got hurt and notice the effect it might have on your body and mind.  Keep practicing it on those small mistakes for a month and see if the practice gets easier.
  3. Stop making assumptions!  When we lack information, it is a natural tendency to fill in the information based upon our past knowledge and experience.  Unfortunately, when we do this we limit ourselves, paving the road toward judgment.  If we can catch ourselves making an assumption or judgment about ourselves, we open ourselves up to the unlimited possibilities inherent in choice!  Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the only constant in life is change and we too can learn to choose to release our attachment to assumptions and judgment.  Instead, we might spend some time identifying what matters to us – our values in life – and allow them to lead us forward and guide us in our decisions.
  4. Listen to self-compassion meditations.  Our thought patterns can be deep and sometimes we need a little help in rewiring our brains.  Consider creating space for yourself (both time and room) to close your eyes and listen to a guided meditation to support the blossoming of the seed of compassion that already exists in your heart.  In fact, maybe take a compassion break right now and click this link to a free Loving Kindness meditation offered by UCLA.  If not now, set a reminder to listen to it tonight as you climb into bed!
  5. Try your hand at writing.  Dr. Kristen Neff has several writing exercises on her website self-compassion.org that utilize writing as a tool to support our efforts to invite more compassion towards ourselves.  Sometimes just writing down the critical, judgmental thoughts about ourselves that occupy our minds helps us get some perspective.  Then we can invite curiosity to the table to review what we have written down, creating space to challenge those judgments.  We can even write a response to our thoughts as if they were expressed to us by a friend and notice how we might respond differently.  Might you consider trying one of these exercises this week?!