Compassion Practice for Strength Building
By David A. Peters, MFT
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 and healing.