Is Shame an Inevitable Legacy of Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Image credit: pixabay

Image credit: pixabay

By Lisa McLean

I work with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

As I sat with a client reflecting on her therapeutic journey, affirming all the wonderful progress she had made as a result of her courage and commitment to change there was one comment I could not shake from my mind. “I no longer believe that I am to blame for what happened to me. I mean, I still have the feeling of shame, but I know it’s not my fault.  I guess that feeling will never go away, but I feel like I can live with it better now.”

It was not the first time I had heard this sentiment from clients.  Shame felt like the last, immovable barrier to healing. But I was discomforted by the off-handed way my client said it was something she would have to live with, as though the transferred ownership of shame was an inevitable legacy. The fact that she knew she was no longer to blame despite the persistence of shame, did not seem like a satisfactory consolation prize to me.

There had to be a way to shift even this most deep-seated shame, internalised since childhood, and reinforced by patriarchal social and cultural messages of victim blaming. I could not accept this as the fate of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Thankfully, I discovered the healing power of self-compassion.

Initially, I was drawn to the work of Dr Deborah Lee.  I will never forget the feeling of hope, excitement, and discovery whilst reading her book Recovering from Trauma using Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)[1] and thinking ‘this is it; this is the missing piece of the therapeutic puzzle!’. Lee even validated the words of my client referring to the ‘head-heart lag’, where there is a discrepancy between what clients know in their head and what they feel in their heart. I was passionate to learn more.

CFT was developed by Professor Paul Gilbert. He defines compassion as “the sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to alleviate and prevent it[2]. Gilbert recognised the potential of compassion to counteract the debilitating impacts of shame and self-criticism and developed CFT specifically for this purpose.  

The evolved function of shame is to alert us to the potential social threat of being rejected by our ‘tribe’ due to violations of social and cultural norms.  As Dr Lee explains, “This social threat is highly linked to the experience of shame, disgust and humiliation. This means that we may believe that ‘who we are’ has been contaminated or damaged by our traumatic experience, or we may fear that other people will think less of us if they were to know what happened to us or what we went through”[3].

Shame can significantly impact our sense of self-worth.  It can convince us that we are ‘less than’ in some way and that we are at constant risk of rejection. It can very hard to offer self- compassion if we do not believe we are worthy of it.  It can be harder still if we have no (or limited) experience of receiving it, which is often the case for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

The process of cultivating self-compassion is therefore not as simple as telling someone to ‘just be kinder to themselves’.  It is not enough to rely solely on rational, cognitive processes.  For many survivors of childhood sexual abuse, their sense of shame and trauma symptoms are not just something they ‘know’ in their mind but feel it in every part of their being. Therapeutic responses therefore need to be similarly embodied and offer survivors an alternative way for them to experience being with themselves.

Through the use of breath, body, and imagery practices as well as information to help provide a context and explanation for their trauma symptoms, compassion cultivation is able to target both the head and the heart.  Through the lens of self-compassion survivors not only understand cognitively that what happened to them was not their fault, they are able to genuinely respond to themselves and all they have experienced with a sense of warmth, empathy, care, courage and wisdom, rather than shame, judgement, and criticism.

I now run CFT-based group programs for adult female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This format provides an additional benefit of reducing isolation and allowing the flow of compassion to expand to the giving and receiving from others. Kristin Neff[4] identifies one of the core elements of self-compassion as shared humanity, an awareness that we are not alone in our suffering. When shame has evolved to make us fear rejection from the tribe, the experience of acceptance, non-judgement, and belonging offers a powerful alternative story. As Brene Brown[5] explains, shame survives on secrecy, silence, and judgment, but if you douse it with empathy (and compassion) it cannot survive. In a group context, survivors can lift the veil of secrecy and silence, feel heard and understood without judgement, and receive and offer empathy and compassion to each other. 

A recent message from a participant (reproduced with permission) highlights the journey from head to heart, and the feeling of being released from shame and self-blame.

Loving my Self is no longer a string of words that I recite at a therapist’s suggestion. But a reality. I am worthy. I am good. I am not the problem nor the reason for all the trauma. AND I NEVER WAS. 

We do not have to accept shame as an inevitable legacy of childhood sexual abuse.

Compassion is the antidote.  

Lisa McLean is a registered psychologist, current PhD candidate, and Compassionate Mind Australia committee member.

[1] Lee, D. (2012). The compassionate mind approach to recovering from trauma using compassion focused therapy. London, UK: Constable & Robinson Ltd.

[2] Gilbert (2014) Gilbert, P. (2014). The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53(1), 6-41. doi:10.1111/bjc.12043, p.19.

[3] Lee, D. A. (2012, p. 65). 

[4] Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8), 856-867. doi:10.1002/jclp.22021

[5] TED Talk, Listening to Shame: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame/transcript?language=en

Self-Compassion and Parenting an Emerging Adult

By Dr Hayley Quinn

Photo credit: Hayley Quinn

Photo credit: Hayley Quinn

When I brought my baby home it felt daunting, overwhelming and such a huge responsibility. Would I be a good parent? Would I do what was right for this beautiful little human? Was I ready to be a caretaker of another life? People were ready with advice, often helpful and at times not asked for or welcomed. There were 1000s of books espousing how I should raise my child, and parenting classes I could attend.  If he were born today there would be online forums abounding. Somehow I managed to find my way through the parenting maze picking out parts that aligned with who I am and how I wanted to raise my little human. 

Fast forward two decades …. and that beautiful little human who was so dependent on me and absorbed much of the focus of my life is all of a sudden (it passes so fleetingly, far too quickly, it’s almost cruel) an emerging adult. He may have been taller than me for many years now but he was still reliant on me. Now he is making his own decisions, about what’s important and what he likes. Over the last few years, I have had to start a process, again, of redefining my role, stepping back enough so he can emerge but not too much so that he no longer knows I’m there for him. More recently the time has come for him to move out of home. How do I now fit into his life? How do I redefine my own life after such a significant role in someone else’s? What does this mean for my own identity? Where are the people, now, ready with advice? Where is the information to reassure me that what I am feeling is normal?

There’s a voice inside of me, you know, the one that whispers to you throughout this parenting journey. Did I do it ok? Have I damaged this beautiful human? Did I teach him what he needs to brave this world? Have I taught him enough to love himself no matter what? At times that voice becomes loud with self criticism, highlighting all the things I wish I could go back and change. The times I was dismissive, got irritated and angry, did something one way and then found out it wasn’t helpful.

How do we manage when the self critical voice is the loudest in the room? I have learned, in my personal and professional experience, that when we slow down, use our breath to engage our parasympathetic nervous system, we can be in contact with a mind that is grounded and calm, a mind reflective of a system that is soothed. We can turn down the volume on the self critical voice and hear the compassionate voice that resides within us. This may be a voice that you have never listened to before or only rarely. We can train our minds to be more compassionate, and develop the skills of self compassion. I have worked with many clients who knew all too well the voice of self criticism and have now come to know the voice of self compassion.

I noticed a deep sense of sadness, as I was going about my business other day, I stopped and gently placed a hand over my heart. I asked myself in a soft and gentle tone “Why are you so sad my darling?” As my breath settled into a soothing rhythm I heard the words “You are grieving, this is a time of letting go. Just know it is all going to be ok. You’re both going to be ok”. If you notice the heavy feeling of sadness, and you hear the self critic berating you, try engaging in a soothing rhythm of breath. I invite you to take a seat for a moment, adopt an upright posture with your feet on the floor and your shoulders gently back to ensure an open diaphragm.  I now invite you to bring your attention to your breath, just gently noticing the rise and fall of your breath. As you slow down your breath with an equal in and out breath, allow your breath to find it’s own soothing rhythm. Notice how your body feels. Now I invite you to gently place your hand on your heart and notice how that feels, perhaps a sensation of warmth. As you think about your role as a parent, a carer, a mother, or father, of a beautiful little human, who is now emerging into adulthood, stepping further away from your close embrace, listen to the words of your inner wisdom. Listen to the soft tone of your compassionate self.  Perhaps it will remind you that you are in a process of grieving, maybe it will offer you words of comfort like you have done the best you could within the circumstances you were in. If you are struggling to hear this inner voice, remember it will develop with practice. In the meantime go gently with yourself, and remember that you are finding your way.

 Go well and go gently.

Dr Hayley Quinn is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice, and President of the Compassionate Mind Australia Committee.

Travelling with my Compassionate Self

By Dr Hayley Quinn

Image: Hayley Quinn

Image: Hayley Quinn

On a recent flight interstate I once again realised the importance of welcoming and trusting my compassionate self. 

I had woken at 5am with a headache and feeling rather nauseous. My initial thought was "No way, I can't be feeling like this" my mind wanted reality to be other than what it was. My husband and I were heading away for a few days to see some dear friends. My initial distress was strong due to the importance of these relationships and not wanting to miss out on time with these special people in my life.  Thankfully after falling back to sleep for a short time my headache lifted and the nausea settled and we left for the airport as planned. 

With time to spare we settled at one of the airport cafes and had a coffee and enjoyed just being together chatting and looking forward to the days ahead. I was feeling relaxed and calm. I then noticed a rising feeling of anxiety. My mind got busy again,” Why am I feeling anxious?” “What's going on?” As I looked up I noticed large groups of people moving towards us from both directions. I'm not a big fan of being in large groups! That's when I heard the soft, comforting words of my compassionate self. It's alright it's just your threat system. You just feel a sense of threat and unease because of all the people that have suddenly appeared. It's ok, it's not your fault. I focused on slowing down my breath and tuning in to the comforting words and tone offered to me by that wise, calm, courageous part of me. 

What is your compassionate self you may ask? According to Prof Paul Gilbert, Founder of Compassion Focused Therapy, compassion is a sensitivity to suffering in ourselves and others with a commitment to try and alleviate and prevent it. Often people think of self compassion as just being kind to yourself, and of course being kind to yourself when you’re suffering is certainly part of it. There’s more to the story though.  At the core of compassion is courage. The courage to be close to your suffering; to recognise that being human is hard; to understand that we have been born with a brain that reacts in ways that are not our fault; and to not behave in ways that reinforces our suffering. It involves acquiring the wisdom to address the causes of our suffering. When we are self compassionate, we are able to be with how we are feeling rather than engage in behaviours to avoid which may be hurtful or harmful to ourselves or others. We are less likely to be self critical or “snappy” at those around us, and we can remain calmer and look at helpful ways to manage how we’re feeling. We can treat ourselves more kindly, in a caring manner that we might treat a loved one.

Once on the flight the nauseous feeling returned, cramped in a small plane my mind started with it’s thinking... “What if I need to vomit?” “What if I have a seizure?” That one got my attention, I've never had a seizure in my life so why on earth would I have one now! Then I remembered I'd recently watched a movie where one of the characters had seizures. “Ok that makes more sense.” “Wait what's that noise? I don't remember the plane sounding so noisy last time I flew?” “Wow how do these huge metal boxes stay in the air anyway?” You get the picture, my mind was busy doing what the mind does and all the while I was still feeling nauseous. 

It was then I remembered I could welcome and trust my compassionate self, that part of me that is wise and calm and courageous. I again noticed my breath starting to slow, I recognised that I needed to adjust how I was sitting in my seat, I rested my head on my husband's shoulder and allowed myself to feel connected to him and my compassionate self. I reminded myself that what my mind was doing was a normal consequence of living with a tricky mind. 

Our minds can get stuck in loops of rumination and worry and that's not our fault, it's just our mind doing what it does. We can however learn to be aware and understand how this tricky mind operates and with compassionate mind training we can learn to develop ways to offer ourselves support, comfort, courage and wisdom in our times of need. 

Dr Hayley Quinn is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice, and President of the Compassionate Mind Australia Committee.

A Therapist’s Journey into Compassion

Written by: Sarah Rees

(re-blogged with permission from author and #365daysofcompassion where it was originally published: https://365daysofcompassion.wordpress.com/ )

Image via UnSplash

Image via UnSplash

My compassion journey started in 2013 when I completed a 3-day introduction into Compassion Focused Therapy, a training course led by Dr Mary Welford.

At the time, I was a CBT therapist in the NHS. When I originally qualified, I thought I’d gained all the psychological tools I’d need for this role, but I had a lot to learn.

Mary’s approach was so different. She talked about putting your pen down and being fully present with your client in every session. Well, I was used to having piles of documentation to complete for each client, so while this seems obvious now, at the time it was a strange concept, I’m saddened to say.

Although it was never explicitly stated during my training, over the years I’d learned it was important to have clear boundaries in order to appear professional. While Mary is very professional, she was also very authentic. She modelled the common humanity that is so important in compassion. We are all exactly the same and struggling with the same things. Mary seemed ok with who she was and her stuff. She didn’t overshare, but she was her true self at all times.

It struck me that there wasn’t much of a divide between who she was as herself and who she was as a therapist. When we’re expecting people to share their innermost thoughts and feelings in a therapy session, it’s very unfair if they don’t get a sense of who we are as a person. Of course, this needs to be carefully nurtured with a supervisor.

Looking back, I think I had two personas at the time and I was conscious of keeping very firm professional boundaries. I’d never questioned this before, but Mary shone a light on a new way to deliver therapy from the inside out. Once I’d become aware of this approach, I couldn’t look back.

Following this training, I decided to undergo a course of personal therapy. As you do, I researched every therapist within 50 miles and ended up with a single therapist I thought was suitable for my specific needs.

I got in touch, saying I’d only need 4 sessions (as I have it all together and this is basically a token gesture of self-exploration). The therapist would only allow me to book 16 sessions and there was a wait. She possibly wanted to get rid of me!

I can’t tell you how nervous I was before my first session. I developed a new respect for anyone who even makes it see a therapist in the first place. The therapy room was meant to be my comfort zone, but I was sat in the wrong chair.

Going through my story was incredibly hard. I was turning toward difficulty. Without realising it, I’d spent many years trying to turn away and avoid these feelings. I felt very exposed and ashamed. I felt angry and judgemental towards the therapist too. I really wanted to maintain the avoidance around my story.

Despite the discomfort I felt, going through my story with someone else was ultimately very validating. Her reaction to me was the most important part of the process. It helped me see that certain things were not right. Years later, I was still trying to fix things and change people around me that were never going to change.

At times, I was shocked she didn’t agree with me even though I was a paying customer, but this challenged me to reflect and consider other angles. Her compassion for my story helped me develop self-compassion. With this compassion, I was then able to think about what I needed. Avoidance, anger and blocking your story means you can’t care for the pain and work through it.

Ultimately, sharing my story helped me develop a compassionate narrative for my experiences. It helped me understand why I am how I am, that it’s not my fault, but it is my responsibility to shape and cultivate my future direction. It made me more aware of why I’m motivated in certain directions at times.

For me, personal therapy was an important first step in developing compassion and self-compassion. It helped me process things that were difficult, and it taught me what it’s like and how it feels to be in the other seat as a client. It taught me how hard it is to turn towards our own pain and difficulty, but also how doing this helps us understand and develop the motivation to alleviate pain.

After therapy, I made changes to my life, mostly in the way I began to accept certain things and stopped fighting others. I let stuff go. Instead of my childhood being something I’m ashamed of, I’m more settled with it now.

The divide between who I am professionally and personally has narrowed and I now work on practicing from a place of common humanity. We all have the same tricky brains, the same hopes and desires, and we have to work on cultivating our best selves.

I later went on to train with Professor Paul Gilbert at Derby University. I learned as much personally as I did professionally.

Part of my story is that when I was 13 and my little brother was 10, my father was killed suddenly in a car accident. He was 40 years old and my mum was 38. When you lose one parent like this, you often lose both because of the grief the other parent must navigate. My mum had never been on her own and we had recently moved from North Wales to Manchester, so we had no-one around us.

Shortly after my dad’s death, my Mum met someone else. I can now see this as understandable, but at the time it was far removed from where I was. I rebelled and became fiercely independent with a drive system that was, and still can be, off the charts.

After a number of horrible years, I left home at 18, working as many hours as I could to keep myself afloat. This drive has been a good support system, but it’s also meant that I’ve missed out on many of the softer things I would have liked in my life.

Developing compassion has allowed me to recognise this and ensure I have anchors in my life to slow me down and let softer things in.

I have a mindfulness practice which I tussled with for a number of years, but now adore. Alongside this, I do yoga every week to re-connect with my body and ground me in the moment.  Having dogs is a big love of my life. The fact I have to walk them every day and play and be silly ensures I access and build my internal soothing system.

While I’ve always struggled with the popular compassion practice of writing compassionate letters to myself, writing has become a big part of my self-care. I journal most days, noting down whatever is in my mind. I ensure I always include gratitude aspects, and if I’m struggling it reminds me to think about how I would support a friend in this situation or to ask myself what is best for my well-being. Writing has become a way of checking in with myself and I’ve recently developed a journal to help others who may be drawn to writing too.

Self-care and nurturing myself is something I now prioritise. I have a few nights a week where I enjoy a lovely candlelit Epsom salt bath and an early night. As a therapist, my mind is the tool I use for work, so caring for me ensures I’m in the right place for others. I need to practice what I preach, so I can help people with the blocks they’ll face.

Connection with others is something I can easily neglect, so I now work hard to maintain good friendships. I have two close friends who are hugely compassionate and have seen me through some serious ups and downs. They’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of me,and I love them to pieces. It would be easy for me to put work first and find I don’t have enough time for our Sunday brunches and evening glasses of wine, but I prioritise the lovely stuff in my life as much as my career, even though being a workaholic is my comfort zone.

I have to keep overworking in check because I can easily burn myself out. If I do overdo it, I notice myself feeling angry and then resentment seeps in. Journaling has helped me spot this pattern, so I’m now more open to recognising these as messengers to slow down.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing all of this religiously. At times of stress and difficulty, I want to have a glass of wine and throw my face into a chocolate cake! Our mind is truly tricky and the more we struggle, the harder it is to self-care, and that’s ok.

I have a clear sense of my compassionate self that I want to cultivate. I don’t think I’ll ever reach it fully, but life’s a journey, not a destination as they say. Me at my best is relaxed and accepting, living in the moment with the wisdom to care for others and myself, and to know when to stop.

I haven’t got it all sorted and I’m a work in progress, but I know how to support myself during my compassion journey and I’m motivated to improve my wellbeing.

Sarah is a very experienced CBT therapist based in Wilmslow, in the UK. She has recently written and published The CBT Journal, a journal developed using CBT techniques, to help with the daily habit of writing about experiences and recording gratitude. Sarah is an active member of the BABCP community and regularly writes her own blog available from her website https://sarahdrees.co.uk/.

Mindfulness for Parenting

By: Diana Korevaar (perinatal psychiatrist and author of “Mindfulness for Mums and Dads”)

Parent and Baby Hands.jpg


Parenting Really is a Challenge

 It’s 3 am. Lou holds her 2-week-old son close to her chest as he cries and arches his back. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she enters “breast refusal” into the search engine on her phone. Lou’s world feels as if it’s falling apart. Having had their second argument for the day late that evening, her partner Anton sleeps restlessly in the adjacent bedroom. As humans, it is the workings of a relatively small part of the brain which relentlessly churns out thoughts, which transforms a difficult experience of exhaustion and fear, into one of anger and despair.

In many ways being a parent has never been more challenging. Modern technology has effectively removed the boundary separating our homes from the demands of work and the opinions of others. Yet riding the waves of exhaustion and irritability whilst at the same time tuning in to the emotional experience of our children and partners is a fundamental aspect of building robust relationships.

“Not Good Enough”

Without the capacity to work skilfully with our emotions, our experiences in life are interpreted through the lens of a negative bias - the legacy of evolution, which favours detection of threat, rather than an assumption of safety. Negative emotions such as anger, fear and shame disconnect us from the present moment and escalate in strength by automatically retrieving memories, images and thoughts of similarly distressing experiences in the past, often far back into our childhood.

So, in the early hours of that morning, well beneath her conscious awareness, Lou’s central nervous system would be gathering information from previous life experiences which left her feeling in some way “not good enough”. This same circuitry would probably also be retrieving memories of past experiences in her relationship with Anton when she felt unsure about her choice in partner.

 Emotions are Infectious

Looking at the storm of emotional reactivity enveloping Lou’s young family, we now have a much better understanding of why we are often so sensitive to the emotions of those around us. From within days of birth, the human brain is specially designed to pick up on the emotions of others and the effect can be very powerful. Whether it is a tone of voice, a facial expression or even someone’s posture - this specialised system in the human brain ensures that like sponges, we soak up the emotions of others. This is why relationships are so vulnerable to powerful feedback loops of negativity.

Not only this, but due to a process called neuroplasticity the areas of the brain associated with emotional distress such as fear, anger or shame, strengthen the more often they are activated. In practical terms this means that the more often we are hauled into reacting to negative emotions by getting caught up in the thoughts that come with them, the more easily we will fall into the same potholes of reactivity in the future. However, the same process of strengthening of neural circuitry also happens when we learn how to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and optimism, or even a sense of being at ease when faced with a difficult situation.

 Emotional Resilience in Children

We now know that the capacity of the human brain to manage strong emotion does not fully develop until well beyond adolescence. Within days of being born, children pick up on and react not only to internal experiences of hunger and physical discomfort, but also to the emotions of caregivers. Without the support of his mother, especially sensing her distance, the distress of Lou’s young child would probably have continued.

 Mindfulness?

It is easy to get confused about mindfulness. Is it something you are doing when you pay attention to a dedicated App on your phone, or when you take yourself off to a quiet place and follow a favourite guided meditation? Escape can easily become the implicit, if not the explicit goal. Mindfulness makes much more sense when we find ways to seamlessly integrate the processes into everyday life, using it to help us transform difficult emotions.

How to Approach Mindfulness for Inner Calm and Stability

 Let us imagine I was working with Lou the day after her distressing night. The fresh memory of that experience would provide the perfect opportunity for teaching practical skills of mindfulness. Rather than simply exploring her experience by talking it through, I could take advantage of the brain’s capacity to act as a powerful simulator, and bring the situation back to life for us to work on together. Imagery is a powerful way to activate systems of emotion, giving us direct access to the circuitry of reactivity.

After suggesting to Lou that she closes her eyes, I would then ask her to bring back the memory of what happened in as much detail as she could remember. The pattern of her breathing would probably become more rapid and shallow and located high in her chest. The small muscles of her face, and the muscles of her neck and shoulders might be tightly contracted. She may notice fleeting images of her baby’s face as he cries, or an expression of anger on Anton’s face as they argued. I would suggest she tune into these experiences, get to recognise the “circuit” of reactivity.

Having activated Lou’s emotional distress, whilst her eyes are still closed, I could then guide her through a way of activating the circuitry of relaxation and tuning in to her baby. We need to pay attention to how we do this work because the emotional centre of our brain is always activated, it is never neutral. Rather than striving to create change, I would model the use of a kind and encouraging voice, perhaps suggest she now bring to mind an image of her son lying peacefully sleeping in her arms, and concentrating on that, ask her to imagine what it would feel like in her body if she could simply pretend to be strong and courageous, working with facial expression, posture and breath.

For homework I might suggest that Lou practices what it feels like to switch between automatic pilot (inviting in thoughts and engaging with them), then switching back into mindful awareness, paying attention to breath and posture, what she can see, what she can hear, in this way finding anchors which provide distance from thinking.

It would also be helpful if Lou could learn how to recognise when she was using distraction as a way of avoiding the noise in her mind – she could experiment with turning off a radio or TV that was providing background noise and put her phone on silent for an hour. In that time, whatever else she might be doing, she could imagine tuning in to a quietness within her. The more closely she listens for it, the clearer it will become.

Mindfulness can become a way in which we live. When thoughts are no longer the enemy, we can be creative, turn to and deeply take in the small pleasures of life that might otherwise pass by unnoticed.

 

 For more information from Dr Diana Korevaar visit: https://www.iampresent.com.au/



 

Healing Trauma with Compassion

by Lisa McLean

heart rope.jpg

How would you live if you were able to live the life you choose, if you lived without fear?

Dr Deborah Lee, Head of Berkshire Traumatic Stress Service and South Central Veteran’s Service in the UK, asked participants to reflect on this thought provoking question during her recent Australian workshop and keynote address at the University of Queensland’s Compassion Symposium in September, 2018.

My own response to this question did not relate to physical courage – despite having a fear of heights. I did not imagine suddenly taking up sky-diving or abseiling, or tightrope walking.  Instead, I imagined what it would be like to live without social fear - to not worry about the judgement of others, and whether or not I would be accepted and valued by them. I thought about how it would change the choices I made if I no longer worried what other people thought of me.  It was clear, my life would be quite different!

As Dr Lee explained, the fear of how we are perceived by others has an evolutionary function.  We are highly social organisms and the threat of being rejected by and disconnected from other members of our group results in us perpetually monitoring our place within the broader social system.

We Are Wired for Connection and Belonging 

So what does this mean for people who have experienced interpersonal trauma or as Dr Lee framed it, those who have been “hurt and harmed at the hands of others”.  If we are wired for connection and belonging, how do we make sense of experiences that involve other members of our social group, especially those who are closest to us, when they act in ways that violate our safety, freedom, and dignity.

Unfortunately, the way many people who have been harmed by others make sense of this experience is to blame themselves, and to carry with them a burden of shame and self-loathing.  This leaves them feeling alone and disconnected from others. When you believe you are shameful, it is easy to assume that others will think the same.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Experiences of interpersonal trauma can lead to the development of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD). The 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11, World Health Organisation, 2018)[1] defines Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as “a disorder that may develop following exposure to an event or series of events of an extremely threatening or horrific nature, most commonly prolonged or repetitive events from which escape is difficult or impossible (e.g., torture, slavery, genocide campaigns, prolonged domestic violence, repeated childhood sexual or physical abuse).” 

Dr Lee highlighted the sobering reality that consistent with this definition, complex PTSD is entirely preventable.  It only exists because another person (or people) made a choice to cause harm, quite often during formative periods of development, resulting in physiological and psychological changes to the way someone perceives and relates to themselves, others, and the world around them.

These experiences can leave those who have been harmed with debilitating symptoms, including the re-experiencing of the traumatic event/s in the form of flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance behaviours to reduce exposure to any reminder of the original traumatic content, and hyperarousal due to chronic activation of the fight/flight system.  Additionally, complex PTSD involves severe and pervasive problems relating to managing difficult emotions, relationship stress, and negative self-perception.

Is Compassion the Antidote?

In her workshop for health professionals, Dr Lee demonstrated through empirical evidence, reinforced by insightful case studies, and experiential exercises how Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) has the potential to effectively respond to the debilitating impacts of complex PTSD. As Dr Lee explained, calm minds think differently, and CFT facilitates this process. Unlike a traumatised mind, which maintains a state of fear and shame, a compassionate mind responds to suffering with kindness, courage, warmth, wisdom, and strength.  In other words, Dr Lee suggested a compassionate mind perspective recalibrates the brain and body to develop the skills that are linked to resilience and well-being. These are skills that would have been present for survivors of interpersonal trauma had it not been for the experiences they endured through no fault of their own. 

Whilst complex PTSD is indeed preventable, Dr Lee’s workshop helped participants develop a sense of hope and encouragement that it is also treatable. If the cause of complex PTSD is characterised by a lack of compassion, the provision and cultivation of compassion may offer the perfect antidote to promote healing.

Dr Lee started her Australian workshop by acknowledging the pivotal moment she attended training facilitated by the founder of Compassion-Focused Therapy, Dr Paul Gilbert, and how it changed the way she understood and worked with clients who had experienced interpersonal trauma. I have no doubt that anyone who attended her Australian workshop and/or keynote address will be recalling their experience in the same way and have been transformed in the way they work, and inspired by her warmth, wisdom, and passion. 


[1] Retrieved from https://icd.who.int/browse11/l-/en#/http://id.who.int/icd/entity/585833559

Can We Expect Compassion from the Banking Industry?

by Lynne Reeder

(Article originally published in 'The Courier', 5th July 2018)

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We can – but only if the new science of compassion is understood.

Following the banking crisis of 2008, investigations in many countries revealed an industry that at times had lost its social focus. Ten years on the stories from the Royal Commission into banking, including that of the former Tasmanian farmer Michael Hirst are unfortunately providing similar examples of insensitivity. In his evidence Hirst claims that his banking group never showed his family any compassion in its dealings with them. While another family were told to sell their farm and home and then were threatened with bankruptcy if they didn't come up with $300,000 within eight days.

Banking executives have accepted that their conduct has fallen well below community standards and expectations. But they have also said that, ‘while these stories of farmers are sad - nonetheless, what they were doing was to pursue their contractual rights to get paid the money that belongs to depositors’.

This statement goes to the heart of the problem. Any business that focuses purely on the bottom line of financial return, regardless of its treatment of employees or customers will create environments that are lacking in compassion and will be unpleasant to work in, or be served by. In addition such views underestimate the complexity required in running large organisations today.

Businesses have multiple groups to whom they are accountable, and many are now recognising that managing corporate reputations requires much more than simply meeting contractual duties.

Co-founding editor of Wired, John Batelle once wrote that ‘business is humanity’s most resilient, iterative and productive mechanism for creating change in the world’.

Banking organisations can only create positive change if they recognise they have both a social and economic contribution to make. Economist, Ross Gittens recently noted that while the business of producing and consuming, earning and spending is and always will be vitally important, it needs to be kept in its place. An economics-obsessed nation is not likely to be a happy, fulfilled nation he concludes. 

The science of compassion as a motivation has a contribution to make to these current debates. Humans have a range of motivations and these motivations include defending themselves against harm, seeking to belong in groups, forming attachments with parents, and as we grow older seeking our own relationships and caring for our children.

Amongst these motivations two of the basic social motives are to:

·       Compete with others, focus on self-advancement (self can include kin and group) control resources, and accumulate;

·       Cooperate with others care and support, for others especially those less fortunate and share rather than accumulate.

The problem with these two motivational systems is that they can produce intense conflicts. Humans have a powerful competitive and acquiring motivation, which tends to turn off other motivational systems that are linked to caring and supporting others. For example, when we are focused on our tribal identity we can be very hostile to people we see outside our group, while at the same time be very caring to those we see within our group.

So for people to engage with the work of compassion it is important they understand about compassion. Compassion is not about being overwhelmed – it’s not about sinking into other people’s pain – compassion is not about being superficially nice, so that people will like you – and it’s definitely not pity, or about patronising others, it’s not about weakness,  softness, or letting people off the hook when they cause harm.

Prof Paul Gilbert, Director of the Compassionate Mind Foundation, UK says that ‘at the core of compassion is courage - the courage to descend into the reality of the human experience’. In calling for more compassion in business we need to understand what a compassion motivation system actually is.

Research has shown there is three parts to compassion:

1)    paying attention and noticing suffering in self and others.

2)    working out how to respond to that suffering within the context it is arising.

3)    creating a sense of self that seeks to avoid carelessly or purposely causing suffering.

This is very important for business and competitive behaviour, because humans will always compete. But when they also become dissociated from, or don’t notice or are indifferent to the suffering they are causing, then that becomes an issue. Gilbert states that the human mind is very tricky and it is very easy to get individuals to turn off their compassion motivation.

Businesses need to be aware of the motivations and behaviours they reward in their staff, because if they do not find a way for competitive businesses to operate within a moral arena then increasingly businesses will be quite happy to make money for their shareholders and themselves, regardless of the harm they are causing to their employees, their customers, or indeed the societies in which they operate.

While businesses are beginning to realise that employee well-being supports profitability and sustainability the compassion question is much broader. The emerging science of compassion based in extensive research is providing new insights into how we can improve our capacity to ‘see’ suffering – because when we are able to ‘see’ suffering then we are better able to address it.

These concepts are important in the banking industry because what the current banking Royal Commission is highlighting is that bankers are often working with people at very vulnerable stages of their lives - some that have life changing consequences.

Science is now studying human motivations, in particular focusing more on understanding the positive qualities and motivations of the human mind, which include compassion, altruism and empathy.  

In his new book, Living Like Crazy, Prof Gilbert points out that developing a compassionate mind creates certain patterns in our brains that organizes our motives, emotions and thoughts in ways that are conducive for our own and other people’s well-being.’

Organisations need to better understand that once they have provided their employees with an underlying motivation that organises their motives, emotions and thoughts, and behaviours then those are what will emerge within the organisation. If individual self-interest promoted, then individual self-interest is the way the organisation will go and employees that find that difficult will simply leave.

The point is that a self-interested competitive motivation (not all competitiveness needs to be self-interested) will organise the mind in a particular way – one that is more likely to focus on profit and bonuses, rather than on the wider impact of those decisions. Clients and customers are often simply not ‘seen’ in a scenario of personal and windfall gains.

If the banking system and indeed all corporate organisations are to engage with compassion then they need to appreciate the power of evolved human motivations. While banking executives may have stated that there are no KPIs for staff to maximize the amount of money made from the sale of assets – it is clear that the sales culture of the banking system rewards employees through incentives such as bonuses, salary, and promotions. And as Peter Drucker reminds us, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

In order to become proficient at noticing what motivation is guiding us, and what emotions are being stimulated, all of us, including banking executives, can learn to be more attentive and mindful. This means is that we come off automatic pilot and start to notice and be aware of what we are actually thinking feeling and doing. How often do we drive home, put the car in the garage and realise that we don’t really remember the drive because we’ve been thinking of something else. Neuroscience tells us that it is very easy for humans to live without attentive awareness.

There is now considerable evidence that becoming more mindful of our emotions, motives and behaviours and making compassionate choices enhances well-being not only of ourselves but also of those around us. Mindfulness allows us to choose what motivation is most conducive to our own, and other people’s well-being and to activate deliberately our prosocial and compassionate motivation.

The science of human motivations needs to be studied if compassion is become part of corporate business. Prof Jane Dutton and Monica Worline in ‘Awakening Compassion at Work’ write that we need to develop ‘compassion competence – so that we are capable of noticing, interpreting, feeling and acting in effective ways when alleviating suffering in the workplace’. Their research is showing that managing with compassion can be learned and developed through practice.

A ‘better world is better for business’ according to the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella.  In his recent book, Hit Refresh he concludes that is why ‘corporations need to think about the impact of their actions on the world and its citizens long into the future’.

As corporations navigate their economic and social impact - the science of compassion can now assist them in keeping both their competitive and cooperative motivations in clear sight.

Dr Lynne Reeder is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Federation University Australia, and the Founder of the Mindful Futures Network at Australia21. As a member of the Compassionate Ballarat Steering group, she is working to bring the science of compassion to organisations within Ballarat.

 

 

Holding on to Self-Compassion in the Midst of 'Mummy Guilt'

By Tiegan Holtham

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I fell pregnant with my first baby when I was 27, years after I had started working on taming my inner critic.  I knew there would be doubt, yet I felt prepared – what could really go wrong? Luckily I was surrounded by people willing to let me know just how much we were messing it up.

The most unexpected twist I discovered along the journey into motherhood was the sheer amount of judgement and guilt that is foisted upon new parents by virtually everyone - health providers, family, friends and an alarming number of strangers.

Some of my favourite comments:

“Oh the poor love is tiny, aren’t you feeding her?”

*wearing baby in a carrier* “Oh is that one of those new hippy things that lets mummy be lazy?”

“Holding her again? You’ll regret it when she’s older, you need to leave her to cry more”

For every developmental stage there was a new round of don’ts. It was exhausting. A brand new baby means brand new parents, who definitely don’t have all the answers. It was far too easy for my critical voice to worm its way in with doubts and fears.

 “I’m terrible at this! She deserves a better mother than me”

“I yelled again! I’m such a horrible parent”

Hormones and sleepless nights aren’t a great mix either, and often it wasn’t just my baby crying. Parenthood is hard. It is years upon years of questioning, “Am I doing the right thing?”

Honestly, having a little self-compassion was the only thing that saved my (and our) sanity.

Luckily, research suggests it’s not just me. 

Recent research out of Canada found self-compassion to be associated with lower stress and depression in parents of children with developmental disabilities, and in parents with a history of depression, those with more self-compassion were less critical and responded with less negative emotions to difficult situations. It seems that self-compassion isn’t just helpful for parents, but good for their children as well.

In a recent Australian study 262 new mothers were given access to brief online resources which outlined simple techniques to increase self-compassion. Although only half had the time to participate, those that did reported feeling more self-compassionate and less stressed, and were more satisfied with their breastfeeding experience.

Another Australian study asked 61 parents to complete either a loving-kindness meditation (LKM) or a matched control focused imagery exercise. They found that most parents enjoyed LKM, with 60% saying they would continue to do it weekly. Parents in this group were more motivated to treat themselves compassionately, and showed more positive (calm and sympathetic) and less negative (frustrated and angry) reactions to difficult child behaviours, than the parents in the control group. The researchers suggested that LKM “might help to support parents’ well-being, their capacity to be less reactive in responding to child distress, and their capacity to cultivate compassionate responses to their child.” Interestingly, parents who practiced LKM were no more motivated to treat others compassionately, so it may not help you resist telling off the next stranger who insults your parenting approach.

The evidence stacks up. Guilt and doubt may be a part of the parenting experience, but it doesn’t have to be.

For me it came down to taking a breath, and realising that feeling miserable about being a terrible parent wasn’t actually making me a better one. What helped was to step back, let go of all the expectations of what I should be doing and focus on enjoying being with her. Babies grow up so fast – it really is worth slowing down and enjoying the journey.

Other things that can help:

  • Find supportive people. It’s not important to agree on everything, but is important to be respectful of each other’s parenting choices.
  • Find time, every day, to do something soothing and enjoyable. Even a few minutes savouring a coffee counts!
  • Talk to others about the good, the bad and the ugly – parenthood can be isolating when we aren’t sharing what is really going on. It’s good to be honest and ask for help when it’s needed.
  • Think about all the fun and enjoyable aspects of parenting, and what we love about the little people in our lives. 
  • Try a loving-kindness meditation (like this one https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/loving_kindness_meditation )

  • Take a self-compassion break:

    •  First – acknowledge this is a difficult moment with a comment like “this is tough, I’m finding it really hard”
    • Second – remind yourself that you aren’t alone. Most parents struggle with the same things – and there are probably millions of others experiencing a very similar moment right now!
    • Third – offer yourself kindness. This can be a comment like, “May I be kind to myself while we get through this”. I often find it helpful to check in with a question, “what do I need right now to feel calm and soothed?”

There is no way to get self-compassion wrong, as long as it is coming from a genuine desire to improve our wellbeing and to be kind to ourselves. Who knows, we may discover we aren’t doing such a bad job after all.

 

How Self-Compassion Can Help Teens De-stress - Mindful

How Self-Compassion Can Help Teens De-stress - Mindful

In a 2014 national survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 31 percent of adolescents aged 13 to 17 said that their stress increased in the previous year, and 42 percent said they were not doing enough to manage their stress. Adolescents who experience frequent stress are more prone to depression and perform worse in school.

How can teens foster emotional well-being during this often-turbulent time of life?

Read More