Compassionate Mind Training
Compassionate Mind Training
Issue 30 – May 2012Author: Phil Houghton (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Compassionate Mind Training is a therapeutic approach designed to enhance compassion
- Compassion is seen as the cornerstone for developing happiness and a meaningful life, but we need to be more modest with regards to its impact.
Implications for practice
- Behaviours need to be seen in their evolutionary, cultural and social context which helps avoid blaming the individual
- Displaying and modelling compassion with those we work with can have an important impact
Why is compassion so important?Gilbert argues that through evolution we have developed three types of emotion regulation systems within our brains that balance and counter-balance each other in order to work towards the evolutionary goal of survival and reproduction. The three types of emotion regulation systems are:
- Threat and self-protection system; designed to quickly pick up on threats and self-protect.
- Incentive and resource-seeking system; which guides and motivates us to seek out the resources we need to prosper (e.g. food, sex, friendships, status)
- Soothing and contentment system; which enables a sense of soothing and peacefulness in order to restore our balance.
How is compassion encouraged?The aim of Compassionate Mind Training is to foster the activation of the soothing and contentment system in order to create feelings of calmness, peace and connectedness. This in turn will inhibit other patterns (e.g. threat and self-protection) which may be destructive when operating excessively. The attributes of sympathy, distress tolerance, empathy, non-judgement, care for well-being and sensitivity, are developed through training in the areas of compassionate imagery, reasoning, behaviour, sensory, feeling and attention. Gilbert describes exercises which attempt to develop these skills such as: developing mindfulness (“learning how to pay attention in the present moment without evaluation or judgement” p. 2491); using imagery such as imagining a wise compassionate person for guidance and inspiration; distinguishing between self-criticism and compassionate self-correction; and behaving in a compassionate way towards the self and others. He argues that the more we stimulate the soothing and contentment system the more our brains will re-wire themselves in order to become more compassionate towards the self and others.
The strengths and limitations of compassionate mind trainingThere are many positives within the model of compassionate mind training. Firstly, by placing the experience of our distress within brains and bodies which have evolved over long periods of time, we are reminded how little choice we have in what we feel and think, and what actions we may wish to take. The model also highlights the importance of the context within which we live in influencing our levels of compassion (Gilbert argues for a different type of politics which ensure social fairness as opposed to the pursuit of wealth). I see understanding people in their evolutionary and social context as a liberating idea as it diminishes the sense that the individual is responsible (even to blame) for their thoughts and feelings and helps provide a framework within which to try and understand behaviour. Whilst the model is more comprehensive in outlining the sources of our distress, my belief is that it is overly simplistic and optimistic in terms of the answers it provides. Underpinning the therapeutic approaches is the belief that an individual can learn the skill of compassion, which will re-wire their brain to become more compassionate, and thus more content, peaceful and accepting. However, just like any skill some of us have more resources to develop it than others. Whilst we may all be born with the apparatus to develop compassion, Gilbert rightly highlights how the quality of care and our social context influence our ability to access and stay within the soothing and contentment system. However what is less acknowledged is that whilst as adults we do retain some plasticity (ability to re-wire) within our brains, this is extremely limited when compared to the level of new connections occurring in our more formative years. I believe we need to be more modest (and compassionate) about the amount of change possible with regards to how we see ourselves and the world, and how we react to it. Whilst the vast majority of people may well be able to develop a more compassionate stance towards themselves, those unfortunate enough to have early experiences devoid or severely lacking in compassion will have limited resources (or building blocks) with which to develop compassion. Similarly, Compassionate Mind Training pays less attention to the fact that many individuals continue to live in social environments that are threatening and where the person has limited resources to change their circumstances. This in turn will severely limit the impact of individual based compassion techniques and any individual focussed therapy. Compassionate Mind Training does however provide a helpful way of understanding such influences which at least reduces some of the self-blame often connected to psychological distress. Beyond the specific skills of compassionate, compassionate mind training reminds all of us of the importance and necessity of offering kindness, care and respect. As staff members it highlights the helpful impact of displaying and modelling compassion to those we work with, and the need for organisations to be compassionate towards its workforce so to enable them to do this effectively.
- Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. Constable: London
- Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focussed Therapy. Routledge: London
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