Anyone who has spent
time in therapy can attest that the process may be painfully difficult at
times. Sometimes we are confronted with issues and answers that we would
rather avoid. In the years I have spent observing my clients and
patients struggle to change their lives, I have learned a valuable lesson that
I now teach as a regular part of my work. This is the practice of
compassion. And whatever could I mean by this?
Frequently, a client will be unable to admit to a
particular problem because they fear the overwhelming shame they would suffer
if they did so. For example, a parent whose alcohol use has hurt a child
already suffers so much buried shame that they remain firmly in denial,
asserting, "I would never hurt my child!" When they later face
the evidence that the child is indeed hurt by the alcohol abuse, they suffer
so much shame that they are too paralyzed to gather the resources needed to make
the necessary change. In another example, a client who is overstressed
by the unfair provocations of her boss at work, carries so much anger and
hatred toward the boss that she is unable to carry out a plan to improve the
relationship. Her hatred limits her power.
So how can compassion help in these situations? Let's
first define what we mean by compassion. Think of it as true caring,
respect, understanding, and good intention. If the alcoholic parent can
learn to have greater compassion for himself, he can then limit the shame he
feels and more honestly confront himself, with greater courage, toward
sobriety. He is more able to go to AA meetings, more free to apologize
to his child, and more open to learning from the confrontation and teaching of
his therapist. And it all hurts less, if the client has a compassionate
attitude toward himself.
If the client in conflict with her boss can find a way to
have compassion for that person, she then carries less paralyzing anger.
She will be better able to see the boss's insecurity or low self-esteem that
fuels the abuse. Then she is free to use a very respectful and even
comforting voice while asserting herself more effectively. She gains
power and influence by practicing compassion for her abusive boss!
How can this be? This therapeutic tool may
actually be a very old secret. There are many scriptural references to
practicing "love of your enemies" and "loving your neighbor as
yourself." The teaching is sprinkled throughout Christian, Jewish,
Muslim, and Buddhist writings. Research has shown that an
increased capacity for compassion is a natural by-product of emotional
maturity. And it is immaturity that causes us to act most
recklessly. If we are overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, shame, anger,
resentment, or envy, we are then ruled by these emotions and we act in less
logical and productive ways. Yet, if we learn to cultivate true
compassion for ourselves and for all others, we are free to act wisely in
spite of our common emotions.
It is important to see that the practice of compassion must
be in both directions - to both self and others. Compassion that
is only toward the self is merely narcissism. We all know the
terrible damage a narcissistic person can do to others' lives.
Conversely, compassion practiced only toward others and not the self is merely
self-destructive co-dependency. A parent who gives and gives to
their spouse and their children without caring for the self becomes a
"doormat", demonstrating that family members need never learn to
respect them. This quickly results in selfish, immature children, and an
infantilized and resentful spouse.
I have found in countless cases, that when I challenge a
client to practice increased compassion toward themselves and toward others in
their lives, that they become more free and more powerful in creating
change. This becomes a critical tool in the most stressful crises, such
as a marriage disrupted by one partner's history of abuse, or a divorce where
children may end up used as pawns in a painful battle. When we are in
greatest pain, and pushed to our limit, the practice of compassion can be a
life-saving act that transforms our very self!
If you are interested in learning more about how to let go
of paralyzing emotions through the practice of compassion, make an appointment
to meet and discuss your interest. There are a variety of techniques
that I teach to increase your access to this powerful tool of personal growth
For more on this topic
contact David Peters, MFT at 619 491-3492