As humans, we are members of a species that has evolved in part because of our built-in capacity and drive toward compassionate action. Evolutionary scientists believe that our ancestors’ innate drive to alleviate the suffering of others is part of what helped us survive and thrive as a species. Conversely, where we see compassion lacking in modern contexts, we also tend to see destruction, degeneration and disease.
It’s no surprise, then, that compassion is still used for psychological and physical wellness and has been the subject of a growing body of research to prove its efficacy with clinical populations.
If you’re in the helping field, you’re probably well acquainted with compassion as an enduring value and underlying quality of the work you do with patients. But bringing compassion into psychotherapy in a clinically useful way isn’t as simple as having the desire to alleviate the suffering of others and yourself.
The following three tips, which are based loosely in the foundations of compassion-focused therapy (CFT), provide a starting point for bringing more compassion into your sessions in a clinically useful way. To learn more about CFT, check out CFT Made Simple: A Clinician’s Guide to Practicing Compassion-Focused Therapy .
Mindfulness is a core component of compassion, and in many ways, it is a foundational skill that makes compassion possible. Through the practice of mindfulness, patients are increasingly able to step back from their thoughts or feelings in order to make a choice that is more informed by compassion rather than judgment, criticism or misunderstanding.
Mindfulness makes way for a more compassionate response to suffering—both that of the patient and of those around them. And luckily, because of the explosion of research in the field of mindfulness during recent years, there is no shortage of empirical support for the applications of mindfulness in therapy.
Mindfulness practices may be a good first step to bringing compassion practices in sessions, because it introduces the patient to his or her capacity to step back and observe inner experience rather than stay fused with it and thus, at its mercy. If you’re not sure where to start, check out these free guided mindfulness meditations.
2. Help Clients See the Ways That Their Suffering is Not Their Fault
From an evolutionary science perspective, many of our behavioral patterns have evolved over time to keep us safe. The ability to snap into fight-or-flight mode in the presence of threat, for instance, served our ancestors well when a lion appeared in the savanna, for instance. Though most of us no longer live in danger of being eaten by a lion, we carry this hardwired fight-or-flight threat response with us to this day. We did not choose to carry with us a hyper-sensitive, ever-active threat-detection system, but we’re stuck with it, for better or for worse.
From the perspective of genetic history, our predispositions toward mental health issues like anxiety, depression, psychosis and even certain phobias have also not been of our choosing and often did not start with us. Whether we are the unwilling recipients of mental health issues because of genetic inheritance or because the generations before us did not have the resources available to resolve them, much of what we struggle with today began long before we were born.
This line of reasoning can be taken even one step further to examine our personal learning histories—from family dynamics to environmental factors—to find that again, much of what we struggle with, including relationship issues, attachment styles and lifestyle habits are not the products of personal choice.
When clients understand that their maladaptive behaviors are not the result of personal shortcomings but rather the result of a combination of evolutionary, genetic and personal learning history, self-compassion can become easier. Understanding that maladaptive behavior is not one’s fault, but rather a case of doing the best one can with the available tools and present circumstances is a key first step in learning to dissipate the shame, self-criticism and blame that can be toxic to the healing process.
3. Guide Patients in Practices of Compassionate Imagery
Imagery practices have the power to stimulate physiological experiences associated with compassion and are used in compassion-focused therapy to train the capacity for compassion both for the self and others. Through imagery practices, patients can experience states like safety, security, warmth and connection that may have been otherwise unavailable to them in their lives.
Imagery practices, which can involve imagining the experience of a compassionate version of the self or imagining the experience of being in a safe place, for instance, have the power to stimulate physiological responses that would occur if the experience were actually happening. The benefits can be profound.
For more about the use of compassion in psychotherapy, check out CFT Made Simple: A Clinician’s Guide to Practicing Compassion-Focused Therapy.