It is a widely held belief that a compassionate and a non-judgemental attitude by a service provider is key to helping others who are suffering. Psychotherapy outcome literature has time and again replicated the major finding that a positive therapeutic relationship and an attuned therapist may be the most helpful aspects of treatment. Specifically in the treatment of traumatized individuals, these positive qualities and attitudes of the therapist have particular benefits (Cloitre, Stovall-McClough, Miranda, & Chemtob, 2004).
Compassion can be defined as a deep and non-judgemental awareness of the suffering of others, with the felt desire to relieve that suffering and increase well-being. Of course compassionate attention can have positive effects on everyone; its impact on those who have experienced trauma is particularly noteworthy. Trauma, especially interpersonal violence and victimization, can result in alienation from others and oneself, it can create expectations of further maltreatment, and other long lasting negative impacts on connections and relationships. Compassionate attention by a caring other encourages these connections and can be reparative.
Creating trusting, safe and caring connections with others and the self is what is required to begin to heal from interpersonal violence and victimization. For people who have been traumatized by others in authority who were to be their caregivers and protectors, therapists and service providers of all types can be viewed as suspect, threatening and frightening. Herein lies the dilemma for many people affected by trauma; in order to live through the original trauma such as childhood sexual abuse, the survivor develops psychological defenses designed to protect him or her against a terrifying helplessness. Although these may have worked well in the context of the abuse, they now protect the person against the development and maintenance of the emotional connections needed to heal. The cruel paradox of living with the after effects of interpersonal trauma is that a caring other can be experienced as both the source of and the retreat from the terror felt by the abused person. In this context, patterns of advance and retreat seen in some individuals affected by trauma makes logical sense as an attempt to deal with powerfully opposing needs and fears. Fortunately, a service provider’s non-judgmental acceptance and positive regard can significantly impact these challenges faced by those affected by trauma.
The positive effects of compassion are not limited to the person impacted by trauma. Adopting a stance of kindness, non-judgemental caring and non-egocentric caring for others also engenders these feelings towards the self.
Many of us were not shown compassion growing up nor were we taught how to be more compassionate in our schools, universities and colleges. Certainly many people are “natural helpers” but others may need to learn to cultivate compassion in order to be more effective in their work.
Mainstream Western clinical training programs typically expect that trainees bring caring, objectivity, empathy and compassion with them to their work yet they usually do little to help develop these skills. Most Buddhist perspectives however offer us a pathway to the development of compassion and unconditional regard through meditation. Mindfulness is a common outgrowth of mediation which teaches us how to concentrate on a single process (often one’s breath), paying attention to the present moment to moment experience without judgment. This process allows the noticing of the rise and fall of thoughts and feelings without avoiding them or becoming attached to them. Among things allowed to rise and fall away are judgements about one’s self and one’s internal experience.
This non-judgmental awareness and non-attachment of one’s internal experience engenders the same approach towards the experiences of others. Some meditation practices are specifically targeted toward the development of positive regard for others.
For additional information:
Self Compassion, Kristen Neff
Wisdom & Compassion, Christopher Germer and Ron Siegel
The Mindful Path to Self Compassion, Christopher Germer
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