Compassion

How to look after your Vulnerable Child

One of the most important ideas in schema therapy is that we all have different 'modes' – aspects of our personality that get triggered in different situations. For example, many of us have a Demanding Parent mode, which is the part of us that pushes us hard to achieve and be successful. Because this mode pushes us too hard, it can lead to stress, exhaustion or burnout, because our drive to achieve exceeds our internal resources and so we struggle to cope with the relentless demands. 

Another part – the most important one in schema therapy – is the Vulnerable Child mode. We call this Little Dave, or Sue, or Steven, and so on (mine is called Little Dan) and it's the part that holds all of our vulnerability, anxiety, unhappiness, loneliness, feelings of rejection or being bullied, depending on our experiences as a child. For example, if your parents were harshly critical of you throughout your childhood, this part will feel defective and incompetent – as if nothing you ever do is good enough. If one of your parents died or left the family when you were young, your Vulnerable Child will feel abandoned and, as an adult, you will be hypersensitive to being left or rejected by those you love. 

In schema therapy, we work hard to look after this part of you – to help him or her feel protected, safe, cared for. In fact, we try to meet those core needs that were not met when you were a child. So if your parents were flaky or untrustworthy, as your therapist I would work very hard to be a solid, dependable, trustworthy person for you. If one or both of your parents was cold and unloving, I would try to be extra-warm, friendly and kind. In this way (as well as using all of the schema therapy techniques, especially imagery) we would, over time, heal your Vulnerable Child – and help you feel calmer, stronger, more confident and secure. It's quite magical to watch this transformation take place – even with the deepest, most sensitive wounds.

Caring for yourself

Of course, you don't need schema therapy to start this healing process yourself. Learning to be kinder and more compassionate to yourself is a good start – take a course in mindfulness, visit a Buddhist centre near you or check out Dr Kristin Neff's website, where there are many free resources on self-compassion training. Yoga is another great way to heal your mind and body, as is reading one of the many wonderful self-help books available – try Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg; or Get Your Life Back: The Most Effective Therapies for a Better You, by Fiona Kennedy and David Pearson, for starters. If you are using alcohol, drugs or food to deal with painful emotions, you may need help to tackle your compulsive behaviour. Visit my Resources page to find a whole range of useful organisations working in this area.

It is my strong belief that, whatever has happened to us in our past, it is never too difficult or too late to change. You may not be able to do this on your own – if so, seek help from me, another schema therapist or any psychotherapist sufficiently well trained and competent to tackle deep-rooted problems. Ultimately, healing yourself begins with a decision – that you are worthy of love and happiness; that you do not want to spend the rest of your life suffering because of painful experiences that were not your choice, not your fault in any way. We only have one life, so it's up to all of us to make the most of it, however hard it has been up to now.

If you would like some help, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan 

 

 

Be a force for good in the world

This post is a bit different from my usual writing on this blog. As a therapist, I am passionate about helping people – those I see in my office, the ones I can reach through my writing, and those who are suffering all over the world. For me, promoting kindness,  compassion and good mental health and believing in social justice go hand in hand. And it currently seems that many of our leaders and corporations, rather than striving to make the world a better place, are doing a great deal of harm. 

Reading the news on a daily basis, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the negative things that are happening around the world. In the UK, we have a government that has done terrible damage to beloved and life-saving institutions like the NHS; and years of austerity have done real and lasting harm to the mental and physical health of millions of – mostly poor – families in the UK. As mental health problems increase at worrying speed among our young people, it's not hard to see the impact of these policies on people's lives.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
— Martin Luther King

In the US, we have a President who attacks the very foundations of democracy on a daily basis, while promoting an agenda which encourages the worst elements of humanity at home and abroad. If you, like me, are a liberal, what should we do? It's tempting to give up and retreat, to focus on the small daily pleasures that life brings and try to ignore the news, hoping it all eventually goes away. But, as someone who believes passionately in social justice; whose life is dedicated to bringing more kindness and compassion into the world; who is deeply proud of living in the wonderful multiracial and multicultural melting pot that is London, I think we have to do all we can to stand up for the forces of light in the world.

What you can do

As the descendant of Russian Jews, who emigrated to Britain in 1905 to escape the Pogroms; whose grandparents worked for a Jewish charity helping immigrants fleeing Hitler in the 1930s, I know all too well where nasty, dehumanising ideologies can lead. And I think we all need to do everything we can to stop them. 

So instead of feeling overwhelmed and helpless, here are three things you can do today:

  • Be a digital activist. Sign petitions (they do work, whatever people say), write to your politicians, post on Facebook walls and tweet to corporations and others who are causing harm. 
  • Boycott companies which are behaving unethically (here is a list of the most and least ethical companies in the world). Write to them and tell them why you are no longer a customer – this is the most effective way to get big companies to change, because losing money and negative PR are the most important influences on them to behave more ethically.
  • Support campaigning organisations like Greenpeace, WWF, Amnesty International USA, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Earthjustice, Hope Not Hate – they are fighting to protect the environment, human and civil rights in the courts, which is a powerful strategy to effect positive change. 

And don't succumb to hatred or bitterness – another Martin Luther King quote comes to mind: 'Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.'

Warm wishes,

Dan

Learning to love yourself

Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott

I was reminded of this Derek Walcott poem at a recent talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Western mindfulness movement (and one of my heroes). It seems to embody not just a self-compassionate, mindful attitude, but also the key idea in schema therapy – that to heal our past hurts we must learn to love ourselves, even if we have long held negative, self-limiting/critical beliefs.

Also, it's a beautiful poem – I hope you enjoy it...

Love After Love
The time will come when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat. 

You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart. 

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 
the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life.

Best wishes,

Dan

Loving-kindness meditation - part two

I recently posted about Metta Bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation, giving you the first two steps of directing loving-kindness to yourself, then a friend – you can find the full meditation below. Just to recap, in Pali, the Buddha's language, metta means ‘love’ (in a non-romantic sense), friendliness, or kindness. Bhavana means development or cultivation. But you don't have to be a Buddhist, or have any interest in Buddhism, to benefit from this practice – mindfulness meditation is increasingly taught as a secular, non-religious series of practices – loving-kindness is one of these.

As a therapist, I help many people who are harshly self-critical or full of self-dislike. Sadly, this internal self-attack often leads to psychological problems like depression, low self-esteem, chronic stress, anger or anxiety. Increasing your sense of kindness and compassion – towards yourself and others – is a proven way to generate positive mental states such as joy, love, calmness, equanimity and strength.

The practice

The full Metta Bhavana practice traditionally encompasses five stages, so allow five minutes for each stage. Here is a step-by-step guide to the practice:

1. This practice will take 25 minutes, so switch your phone to silent (if it has a timer, set it to repeat after 5 minutes) and make sure you will not be disturbed. As with all meditation, it's important to attend to your posture, making yourself comfortable on a cushion on the floor or a straight-backed chair, sitting with your spine, neck and head in alignment. Your posture should be upright and alert but relaxed.

2. Bring your awareness into your body, starting in your feet and travelling slowly all the way up to your scalp. If you notice any tension or discomfort, allow that part of the body to soften and relax. Then bring your awareness to the heart region – it can help to place your hand over your heart and feel the warmth this generates. Allow this warmth to permeate into your practice.

3. In stage one, you direct metta towards yourself. You can visualise your face, perhaps seeing the metta as a golden light shining from your heart and enveloping your whole being. Or remember a time when you felt happy, or proud of yourself – there is no set rule, so whatever helps you get in touch with positive feelings towards yourself is fine. (If you don't feel anything, that's not a problem – feelings will come in time, so don't try to force them). Repeat these phrases in your mind: 'May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.' Say them slowly and deliberately – this a great gift you are offering yourself, so don't rush it.

4. If you become distracted by thoughts, sounds or body sensations, that's not a problem. Simply notice that your attention has wandered and gently bring it back to the phrases.

5. In part two, we direct metta towards a friend – this should be someone you feel positive about, not a person with whom you have conflict or difficulty. Repeat: 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.' If you feel like varying the phrases to suit this person, that's fine – so it could be 'May you be free from stress. May you be confident. May you be free from anxiety.' Again, don't force this, but if it happens naturally that's fine.

6. In part three, we direct metta towards a neutral person. This can be someone you see regularly but have never spoken to, maybe in the supermarket or your favourite coffee shop. See this person's face in your mind's eye, then repeat 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.'

7. Part four entails directing metta towards a difficult person in our lives. At first, it's best to choose someone you are having a little difficulty with, not your worst enemy. Unsurprisingly, this is generally the hardest stage, but remember that when you fill your mind with negative, angry, hostile thoughts, or fill your body with emotions like resentment or hatred, you are the one who is suffering, not them. And the Buddha taught that all beings deserve our compassion, not just the ones we like!

Repeat 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering,' perhaps visualising golden light flowing from your heart to the difficult person. If you struggle, place your hand over your heart to generate warmth in this region, then try again. If you feel numb or angry, that's fine, just accept these feelings and continue repeating the phrases, as having a positive intention is the most important thing.

8. Finally, we direct metta to all life. You may want to start by imagining yourself your friend, the neutral and difficult persons, sending metta to each in turn. ('May we be well. May we be happy. May we be free from suffering.') Then expand that circle to include all of your friends, family, community, residents of your city, country, continent... expanding the flow of metta until you cover the whole globe. Then include insects, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles... ('May all life be well. May all life be happy. May all life be free from suffering.')

6. After 25 minutes, allow yourself to sit quietly, noticing if you feel any different than when you started. If not, that's fine, but you may notice a greater sense of softness, an uplift in your mood, or feelings of warmth and friendliness. Just allow whatever's happening right now to be there, then slowly open your eyes and start moving your body; and take this new attitude into the rest of your day.

I very much hope this practice proves helpful for you. If you would like to know more about cultivating greater kindness and compassion for yourself, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Bibliotherapy on compassion

'Bibliotherapy' is an important part of cognitive therapy, either to run alongside a course of therapy or as a self-help tool. I often recommend books to my clients, partly because there is only so much time in a session, so it's much more useful for them to read up about their particular issue and for us to discuss their findings next week. But I also find that many people like to understand why they might be having problems and find their own strategies for solving them – another important idea in cognitive therapy, because ultimately I want my clients to be their own CBT therapist.

In this post I will focus on compassion and compassion-focused therapy – a new form of cognitive therapy designed to help with deep-rooted issues such as long-term or cyclical bouts of depression, low self-esteem or unhelpful self-criticism. The idea is that you can read one or all of these books, depending on which appeal to you. And you can read the whole book or dip into the chapters that seem most relevant to you.

1. The Buddha's Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius. If, like me, you are interested in the science behind meditation and talking therapies like CBT, this is the book for you. The authors explain how our brains are actually shaped by the things we think every day – think negatively and you build neural pathways that make negative thinking your default approach; but focus on feelings like kindness, pleasure, gratitude, generosity and warmth and you build a brain that naturally focuses on these self-nurturing qualities. Don't be put off by the science – it's also a rich, wise, beautifully written book that's packed with common sense techniques you can use to help yourself feel better. This is one of the books I recommend to all my clients, because it just makes you feel so good to read it. 

2. The Compassionate Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger, by Russell L Kolts. This warm, wise and helpful book is written by an American clinical psychologist specialising in anger issues, with vast experience of working with groups such as prisoners, for whom destructive anger is clearly a major problem. He draws on Paul Gilbert's compassion-focused therapy to explain the evolutionary/psychological basis of anger, especially its role in protecting us from threats, either real or perceived. CFT focuses on strengthening the parts of our brain that help us feel calm, confident, strong, peaceful and safe; these act as a direct antidote to feelings like hostility or aggression, so are fundamental to feeling less angry and generally happier and more emotionally balanced.

3. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, by Matthieu Ricard. Another life-changing book for me – as someone with a strong interest in Buddhism and Buddhist psychology, I found Happiness at the same time inspiring and humbling because it showed me how much I still have to learn, both personally and professionally. Ricard was an eminent French scientist before his interest in Buddhism led him to become a monk, living in the Himalayas and studying with some of the great Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Developing self-kindness and compassion is a key focus in Tibetan Buddhism (which is why the Dalai Lama so often talks about compassion). The author explains, with great clarity and simplicity, how anyone can learn to free themselves of what the Buddha called the 'three poisons of the mind': greed, hatred and delusion. You don't need to be interested in Buddhism to love this book – its message will appeal to anyone on the path of personal growth or who just want to be happier. And that means everyone, doesn't it?

If you would like to book a session with me, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan 

Try loving-kindness meditation

Three of the core Buddhist meditation practices are the body scan, mindfulness of breathing and Metta Bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation. In Pali, the Buddha's language, metta means ‘love’ (in a non-romantic sense), friendliness, or kindness. Bhavana means development or cultivation. But you don't have to be a Buddhist, or have any interest in Buddhism, to benefit from this practice – mindfulness meditation is increasingly taught as a secular, or non-religious series of practices – loving-kindness is one of these.

As a therapist, I help many people who are harshly self-critical or full of self-dislike. Sadly, this internal self-attack often leads to psychological problems like depression, low self-esteem, chronic stress, anger or anxiety. Increasing your sense of kindness and compassion – towards yourself and others – is a proven way to generate positive mental states such as joy, love, calmness, equanimity and strength.

The practice

The full Metta Bhavana practice is traditionally in five stages, so here are the first two – I will go through the full practice in a later post:

1. This practice will take 10 minutes, so switch your phone to silent (if it has a timer, set it to repeat after 5 minutes) and make sure you will not be disturbed. As with all meditation, it's important to attend to your posture, making yourself comfortable on a cushion on the floor or a straight-backed chair, sitting with your spine, neck and head in alignment. Your posture should be upright and alert but relaxed.

2. Bring your awareness into your body, starting in your feet and travelling slowly all the way up to your scalp. If you notice any tension or discomfort, allow that part of the body to soften and relax. Then bring your awareness to the heart region – it can help to place your hand over your heart and feel the warmth this generates. Allow this warmth to permeate into your practice.

3. In stage one, you direct metta towards yourself. You can visualise your face, perhaps seeing the metta as a golden light shining from your heart and enveloping your whole being. Or remember a time when you felt happy, or proud of yourself – there is no set rule, so whatever helps you get in touch with positive feelings towards yourself is fine. (If you don't feel anything, that's not a problem – feelings will come in time, so don't try to force them). Repeat these phrases in your mind: 'May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.' Say them slowly and deliberately – this a great gift you are offering yourself, so don't rush it.

4. If you become distracted by thoughts, sounds or body sensations, that's not a problem. Simply notice that your attention has wandered and gently bring it back to the phrases.

5. In part two, we direct metta towards a friend – this should be someone you feel positive about, not a person with whom you have conflict or difficulty. Repeat: 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.' If you feel like varying the phrases to suit this person, that's fine – so it could be 'May you be free from stress. May you be confident. May you be free from anxiety.' Again, don't force this, but if it happens naturally that's fine.

6. After 10 minutes, allow yourself to sit quietly, noticing if you feel any different than when you started. If not, that's fine, but you may notice a greater sense of softness, an uplift in your mood, or feelings of warmth and friendliness. Just allow whatever's happening right now to be there, then slowly open your eyes and start moving your body; and take this new attitude into the rest of your day.

I very much hope this practice proves helpful for you. If you would like to know more about cultivating greater kindness and compassion for yourself, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan 

Living a compassionate life

Compassion is one of those words, like kindness, that some people seem to feel uncomfortable with. When I suggest that a self-critical client could be more compassionate to themselves, they often say, 'But how would I motivate myself?' Or 'How could I stop my standards from slipping?' This idea, that being harshly self-critical is the best form of motivation, often baffles me. Think of it this way: if your child was struggling with maths at school, would you want their teacher to shout at them and tell them they were stupid and pathetic? Or would you want a teacher who was encouraging, helped them understand what they were doing wrong and kindly taught them, step by step, how to improve their work?

It's a no-brainer, isn't it? So why do we think that being harsh and unkind to ourselves, using names like 'idiot', 'stupid' and 'loser', will do anything but drain our self-confidence and make us feel stressed, anxious and unhappy. We also know from MRI scans of the brain that our brains cannot distinguish between external attack – from a bully, say – and internal attack, when we are punishing and angry in our thoughts and self-perceptions.

There is also an idea that kindness and compassion are fluffy, wishy-washy concepts – fine as ideas but of no use when dealing with the harsh realities we often face in daily life. Not so. When learning about compassion, I have been deeply struck by the teachings of Tibetan Buddhists like the Dalai Lama and his French interpreter, Matthieu Ricard. In his wonderful book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, Ricard describes the often harrowing stories of Tibetans who have suffered terribly at the hands of the Chinese military – China has occupied Tibet since 1950, killing and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

But the Tibetans, who have been tortured or seen their loved ones murdered, are neither bitter nor full of hatred for their tormentors. Instead, their deep resources of compassion allow them to retain their sanity and equilibrium. The Buddha teaches us that hatred is a poison for the mind; it causes as much suffering for the hater as the object of his or her hate. When I read these stories I am humbled, because of people who have suffered so much can forgive their invaders, I can certainly forgive the petty annoyances and difficulties people cause me.

The Dalai Lama tells us that compassion is not just for the easy people in our lives – those we love and care about. Compassion is for everyone, whether we like them or not; those who help us and those who do us wrong; the easy and the difficult, likeable and dislikable. As he says, 'Everyone wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer'.

So, try to be a little more compassionate in your life – both to those you come into contact with and yourself. Compassion really is like a healing balm to a troubled mind.

If you would like to learn more about being kinder and more compassionate to yourself, and would like to arrange a session, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Compassion for all - including you

The Buddha taught that we should have compassion for all living beings: every bird, animal, fish, insect... and human on this planet. This is not easy. Leaving aside the thorny question of what we are supposed to eat if we take this idea to its logical extreme, let's focus on people, because that's complicated enough. For example, it's easy to feel compassion for those we love or like. We can forgive those closest to us pretty much anything, because we have such a strong bond with them.

Our friends, parents, siblings, children, spouse – if we are lucky enough to have good relationships with these people, feeling compassion for them is not hard. But what about that colleague you don't get on with at work – the one who talks about you behind your back? Or the guy who just cut you up in traffic, nearly causing a nasty accident?

Taking it one step further, how about politicians like Donald Trump who promote violence and racism? Should we really feel compassion for him? And harder still, how about a murderous dictator like Stalin or Hitler – surely they are the last people on earth we should feel compassion for.

As someone who is passionate about Buddhist psychology's depth, richness and practical wisdom, I have long struggled with this idea. But as far as I understand it, the Buddha would say that we should feel compassion for everyone, even those we find abhorrent, because the alternative is to fill our minds with hatred, anger and hostility, which he called poisons of the mind.

If I spend my days hating Trump, who suffers? Not him, for sure. I can fundamentally disagree with his odious behaviour without succumbing to hatred – instead, I can wish for him to change, to become a less hate-filled and harmful person, because that will reduce the suffering he causes in the world.

And I can't believe that anyone who is so full of anger and hatred is truly happy; so I can have compassion for their unhappiness without approving of the person in any way.

Compassion for yourself

If this all seems hard to grasp, surely it's easier to think about feeling compassion for yourself? Sadly, in my experience of helping people with all sorts of psychological problems, this is neither simple nor easy. Time and time again I am saddened by the harshly critical way in which people talk to themselves in their minds.

They call themselves names like 'idiot' or 'failure', say they are 'pathetic' or 'crazy' or worse. And this, of course, creates suffering – research shows that harsh self-criticism is linked with depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, eating disorders, anger-management problems, and more.

So a key focus with all of my clients is encouraging them to be kinder to themselves. Mindfulness meditation really helps with this, as do a wide range of cognitive and schema therapy techniques. But you can start today, simply by catching yourself using harsh words when you speak or think about yourself. Ask the simple question, 'Would I talk to my best friend like this?' If the answer is no (and it almost always is), try speaking to yourself a little more kindly. It could make a huge difference to the way you feel day to day.

And if you would like to learn more about compassion, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan