Fears, Blocks & Resistances to Compassion

Overview

Compassion is one of the most important but most poorly understood concepts. Some people equate the word ‘compassion’ with kindness. Others equate being compassionate with being ‘soft’ or as being a ‘weakness’.

This page builds upon previous posts I have made which discuss the common myths about compassion and it introduces a very helpful concept – which will help you identify which aspects of compassion you find difficult. These difficulties will be collectively referred to as Fears, Blocks & Resistances (FBRs) to Compassion.

We know from recent research (here & here), that fears of offering compassion to oneself and others, and fears of receiving compassion from others, continues to significantly predict poorer social safeness and poorer mental health outcomes. Thus, the following page aims to explore the causes of these fears.

Compassion Defined

A standard definition of compassion involves two-parts: “Sensitivity to the causes of suffering in one’s self and others” (Part A), combined with the “commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it” (Part B).

This does not just mean ‘being kind’ – Compassion may involve coming into contact with suffering so that you can do whatever is necessary to help reduce or stop it. Think of a mother throwing herself in harm’s way so as to protect her children (doing whatever needs doing!).

What this means is being willing to understand the nature and causes of suffering while also being willing and courageous enough to come into contact with (vs avoiding) that suffering, so that we can actually do something to eliminate or prevent further harm in the best ways that we can.

As you will see, this not always easy to do. Most people coming to therapy are eager to “alleviate” their suffering (the second part of the definition), but at the same time they are in fact insensitive to their own suffering. Read on, to find out why this is!

Firstly, compassion is a caring motivation that requires immense courage and an important set of inter-related motivations and skills that consist of: Having precise and sensitive awareness of suffering (Sensitivity); allowing ourselves to feel moved (Sympathy); having an ability to understand what is going on from different perspectives (Empathy); having an ability to tolerate distress (Distress Tolerance); and, having a non-judgmental attitude regarding what is going on (awareness of distress without ‘adding to it’ or going to threat / protective strategies).

Compassionate actions are caring and offer safeness to the recipient in times of need. In the Animal Kingdom, mothers of many species behave in nurturing ways that attend to the needs of their young – needs to provide food, comfort, and safety. Humans can also be seen doing these actions too – eg, mothers can often respond to distressed cries of their children who are seek attention, soothing, reassurance, and safeness.

Unfortunately, due to painful emotional or interpersonal experiences from our developmental histories (such as childhood experiences of shame, rejection, bullying, parental hostility, neglect or unresponsiveness), many people develop difficulties with the skills associated with Compassion and consequently experience one or more blocks to giving or receiving Compassion. In other words, these individuals have learned to associate warmth, closeness, caring, and soothing, with loss, pain, or Threat.

This is a significant problem, because as discussed below, a block to one or more of the three flows of Compassion is common across all mental health difficulties.

The Three Flows of Compassion

There are three flows of compassion:

  • Giving compassion to others

  • Receiving Compassion from others

  • Giving (and receiving) Compassion to the Self (Self-Compassion)

Fears, Blocks, or Resistances (FBRs) in any of these will indicate that a ‘threat’ orientation dominates an individual’s inner and outer world with respect to that particular aspect of Compassion. As you will see – this can play out in very complex ways. Read on…

Fears, Blocks, & Resistances (FBRs) to Compassion:

To Others: People often report that it is ‘easier’ to be compassionate towards others than it is to one’s self. We know that many people who treat others with compassion are harsher when it comes to how they treat themselves. However, when there are FBRs regarding giving Compassion to Others, this is often due to fears such as: “I will lose something” / “Others will take advantage of me” / “I cannot tolerate others’ distress”. Although to the recipient this may appear to be a complete “empathic failure”, such blocks are in fact protective strategies that make a lot of sense when you consider a person’s developmental history. FBRs in response to giving Compassion To Others are very common in people who experience intense anger, interpersonal mistrust, and narcissism and can lead to behaviours that hurt others and isolate the individual, resulting a deep sense of loneliness.

From OthersThe main themes behind FBRs in response to receiving compassion from Others is – mistrust: ‘”I don’t trust other peoples’ motives – Why are they being so nice to me … what do they want… ?” “I fear if I need people to be kind, then they won’t be” “If someone is being kind to me, I put up a barrier”. People with this block have often either experienced a trauma, or have been repeatedly hurt, abandoned, or let down by others during significant times of need. Having a low trust in others could be thus viewed as a protective strategy – and one that makes a lot of sense.

To Self: Having FBRs around Compassion directed towards the self happens when one becomes insensitive to one’s own needs.  Commonly cited FBRs include: “I fear that if I develop compassion towards myself then I will become someone I don’t want to be” “I fear I will become a weak person” “I don’t deserve it!” “If I am nice to myself – I won’t get anything done” “If I allow myself to feel sad, then I will become overwhelmed with loss / grief”. There are many reasons why someone may respond in this way. Some people may have had a history of either being uncared or punished for having certain feelings and so they have learned that their needs are not important and thus they have ‘switched off’ their awareness of their own needs. For other people, the idea of engaging in self-compassionate, may trigger the threat system and is thus avoided. This is because one of the most common barriers to developing self-compassion is our own “inner critic”, which often has origins in our developmental past.

Fears of Compassion From Others and Towards Self

You might be surprised to learn that FBRs to receiving Compassion from others and FBRs regarding efforts to direct compassion towards Self are both closely related concepts. Specifically, what we know about FBRs to these Flows of Compassion is that people who experience blocks regarding the flow of compassion towards self are generally also blocked when it comes to receiving it from others. For instance, research has found that fear of compassion for self was linked to fear of compassion from others, and both were associated with self-coldness, self-criticism, insecure attachment, and depression, anxiety, and stress.

This is understandable, because both tap into the same overall concept of ‘receiving compassion‘. Often, we can use this understanding skillfully to open ourselves up to Self-Compassion gradually – by first being more receptive to noticing and receiving compassion from others (yes others – not ourselves). I liken this to opening a door or window just a  l i t t l e  and v e r y  gently – just enough to let a tiny little bit of light in.

For many people, this can be easier than being directly compassionate towards one’s self and it benefits you because you a strengthening your ability to receive compassion as a general concept. Practicing Self-Compassion can come next.

One takeaway message is that the common saying “You can’t be kind to others, if you can’t be kind to yourself” is completely untrue because we know from the research that many people who are highly caring of others at the same time struggle with Self-Compassion. Furthermore, the developing one of these skills doesn’t necessarily lead to having the other. To become more compassionate and self-compassionate, we have to work on developing both skills. This calls for us to be aware of our FRBs and then to take action.

What to do about it?

Self-compassion is an important predictor of mental health. As I’ve written about here, people with more self-compassion are more resilient in the face of set-backs or failure, less likely to experience depressionless likely to ruminate on negative social experiences, and more open to mental health treatment. Basically, being nice to yourself pays off.

Although Mindfulness can assist with the ‘Sensitivity’ part of Compassion, a significant amount of people experience some form of block and/or fear to opening up to the full flow of compassion. Many clients I see want help with the alleviation part of their suffering, but they are completely insensitive to being with the causes of suffering. Basically, they want to get to the ‘fix’ without caring for the part of themselves that is injured in the first place.

People who lack of Self-Compassion experience intense shame and self-criticism. As I discussed elsewhere this triggers the Threat System, which can result in self-attacking (self-harm) or a complete collapsing around their difficulty (depression).

If you find it hard receiving compassion from others, or you find it hard giving positive emotions or acting in caring ways towards yourself – you may benefit from working with a clinical psychologist trained in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), who can help you cultivate a more self-compassionate (vs self-critical) stance. As was discussed earlier, the reasons are completely understandable and they most likely relate to your developmental history.

I will write further self-help articles on how to develop the Compassionate Self when I get the time, but until then, please check out my page on Self-Compassion which has a list of resources at the end of the article.

Summary:

  • Despite the similar names, Compassion and Self-Compassion are two distinct skills.
  • There are three flows of compassion: to others, from others, and to the Self (Self-Compassion).
  • For some people, due to their developmental histories and emotional learning, Compassion and Self-Compassion may trigger a ‘threat’ response, giving rise to avoidance or even fear reactions.
  • Fears, Blocks, or Resistances (FBRs) are protective strategies that can play out in very complex ways.
  • FBRs around Self-Compassion are commonly expressed as shame and self-attacking, such as self-criticism. This is very common in depression.
  • The reasons for FBRs are completely understandable and they most likely relate to your developmental history and your learning about positive emotions.
  • Understand the relationship between FBRs about Compassion From Others and To Self
  • If you find it difficult to allow or receive compassion from others, or you find it difficult acting in caring ways towards yourself – you may benefit from working with a clinical psychologist trained in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), who can help you cultivate a more self-compassionate (vs self-critical) stance.

Further Resources:

 

If you would like to discuss working together, I would love to hear from you. I am a PhD Clinical Psychologist with over 10 years’ experience trained in Mindfulness, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). 

To book in a session with me:

CONTACT ME

I will typically respond to you within 12-24 hrs.

If you would like to discuss working together, I would love to hear from you. I am a PhD Clinical Psychologist with over 10 years’ experience trained in Mindfulness, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). 

To book in a session with me:

CONTACT ME

I will typically respond to you within 12-24 hrs.