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97. Compassion

I had a lot of responses to my last email, on powerlessness, it seems that it struck a chord with many of you. So it is partly for that reason I'm following it up, Powerlessness Part Two if you like, and partly because there's something that we all need in order to tolerate powerlessness, and that is compassion for ourselves. 'What if, instead of being born to nice middle class parents who valued education and decency and order, I had been born to an east end gangster who stole, murdered and beat up my mother? Who would I be now, do you suppose?' So began Paul Gilbert, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby, at his one day workshop on compassion-focussed therapy. 'I would probably be dead or in prison,' he said, answering his own question. His point was that most of what defines our lives is a lottery - we have no control over where we are born, to whom, and how we are treated. In other words we are powerless over the most important determinants of our lives. One of the most crucial defining factors in our young lives is whether we felt safe. Children who are cared for and nurtured in a secure home are likely to learn that the world is generally a safe place, that people can be trusted and that they themselves are of value. When things go wrong they tend to be kind to themselves, because that is how their parents treated them when they were sad or afraid. Children who grow up in families where there is a lot of hostility, inconsistency and neglect learn that the world is not safe, and that they need to find strategies to survive. These children tend to spot where the power lies in their family unit, and they work at keeping that person happy. They survive by becoming vigilant and submissive, and if that doesn't work, in other words if bad things still happen despite their best efforts, they blame themselves. Of course, families don't fall neatly into these two categories, most of us grew up in families that fall somewhere in between, but those of us who tend to be the 'fixers' that I mentioned in my last tip are more likely to have grown up in families where there were problems, and to have responded by trying to solve them. We tend to be excellent at caring for others, and pretty poor at caring for ourselves. And one of the most basic forms of self care is compassion. What we really needed as children when things went wrong, was not a PhD in family therapy, but a caring and responsible grown up who would first notice our distress and then take us into their arms and comfort us. At that point we would have the chance to learn something extremely important - that we are powerless, that we are not to blame when things go wrong, and that the way to feel better in adversity is not through action, but through kindness. When we grow up and our parents are no longer around, because we have the memory of how it felt to be comforted, we can do it for ourselves. If we don't have this experience regularly as a child, though, we learn something very different: that the way to feel better is through fixing. Imagine someone who is working at a senior position in a company or organisation that is making redundancies. He or she is the main breadwinner in their family, they are in their fifties and they worry that if they lose this job they'll never get another. This person is a fixer, but unfortunately they can't fix this situation, they have no power over it. They therefore worry in the belief that if they do a solution will surely appear. They become more and more stressed and less and less effective. Let's imagine another person in the same situation, but this person has experiences of being comforted when things went wrong as a child. This person is distressed too, but they respond to that distress by being kind to themselves. This is not self pity, it is simple kindness that you would give to any friend in distress. Being kind to themselves allows them to feel what they're feeling, and allows those feelings to peak and pass as often as they need to. They then feel calmer and happier. They are facing the same problem, but their strategy will make them more resilient and resourceful. As Paul Gilbert says, life involves dealing with difficulties and people do the best they can. We can take neither credit nor blame for how well equipped we are to deal with those difficulties, but we can learn to be kind to ourselves. Try this:

  1. Take a situation or problem that you are experiencing, or have recently experienced. Check how you're feeling about this. Is it stress, disappointment, guilt, anger, hurt, sadness, fear.......?

  2. What has been your instinctive way of dealing with this situation - has it been to fix it, or if you can't fix it, has it been to worry, deny or avoid it? Alternatively, have you taken time to take care of yourself, to be kind to yourself, to sooth yourself? Or have you done a bit of both?

  3. Whatever strategy you have been using, what has been the result? Has it made you feel better or worse?

  4. Think of the last time you felt compassion towards someone. It might be someone you know, someone in the news, an animal or person who is in distress. Take a bit of time to really feel that compassion.

  5. Keeping that feeling, turn it gently towards yourself.

  6. Repeat as required.

Be kind to yourself this week. Love Anita