Focusing on Compassion

Focusing on Compassion

Compassion-Focused Therapy is a current professional emphasis of mine. I have been a counsellor for a number of years, but it is always good to find something new. In 2019, I came across this therapeutic modality and it fits with much of my philosophical and personal interests and experience. Cognitive modalities (e.g. Cognitive Therapy) attempt to help us change our thoughts and there are a number of helpful techniques, but what about the emotions sitting “under” those thoughts? Yes, thoughts can drive emotions, but emotions can also drive thoughts. Focusing only on the thoughts that might result from emotional states is dealing with the symptoms and not necessarily the causes.

Thoughts are not enough

We are not computers. This computer analogy in mental health has been popular since the 1950s and views us as “programmed” – either through life experiences or biologically (genetically). Rewrite the program and you have “solved” the glitches/bugs. This analogy doesn’t hold when you realise that there are various parts of our brain which have evolved over millions of years. There is the base reptilian part of our brain. Lower functions are there and you will not find wiring for things like compassion. Then there is the mammalian part of our brains which developed later. Here you find our tribal nature, our desire to be nurturing parents and our emotions. These parts of ourselves we share with other warm-blooded animals. Finally, there is the part of us – the newest part – which is involved with logical thought. This newer brain is the focus of cognitive approaches. Using cognitive approaches, we learn to reason better, looking for evidence for our views and we are “cured” of misguided perceptions. The problem with these approaches is that we are not thinking machines. We are not guided by logic primarily.

Emotions we need

We have feelings. We need connection. We need love and to be nurtured. This is the part of our mind which is often neglected in modern societies and which is the focus of newer psychological approaches, from Compassion-Focused Therapy to the more broadly researched areas of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology asks what makes the good life and how to we pursue it. The answer involved satisfaction, love, connection and many other emotional states.

Compassion-Focused Therapy and Cognitive Therapy

How might Compassion-Focused Therapy work with cognitive approaches? We all act irrationally at times. Looking at the thoughts driving our actions and feeding back into our emotional states can be very important. It can be very valuable to sort through our thoughts (including the stories which hold us back from our preferred lives – Narrative Therapy comes in here). After we have looked at these thoughts, we then need to look at how we might better enrich our positive emotional states, such as compassion, empathy and overt acts of kindness which feed our positive emotions.

Working with our whole selves

We are whole beings, with emotions, thoughts and other states of being. An effective approach to therapy should help us to develop as whole persons.

Aroha nui,

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Gerald Lee Jordan, MBA, MEd, MCouns ❤️