Compassion and therapy
If we pause to think about it, we all probably know someone affected by mental health problems, perhaps even ourselves. Mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are far more common than we may think.
This is where the concept of compassion can play an important role. Compassion – the feeling of warmth and kindness towards ourselves and/or others in moments of distress, accompanied by the desire to help alleviate this suffering (Neff, 2003) – can go a long way to raise awareness of mental illness and to provide non-judgemental understanding and support.
The power of compassion can be seen in the effectiveness of psychological interventions such as Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) which aims to help promote mental and emotional healing by encouraging people in treatment to be compassionate toward themselves and other people. Compassion, both toward the self and toward others, is an emotional response believed by many to be an essential aspect of well-being. Its development may often have the benefit of improved mental and emotional health.
Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) is a kind of psychotherapy primarily designed to help those who suffer from high levels of self-criticism and shame. It helps you to learn how to feel kinder towards yourself and others, and to feel safe and capable in a world that can seem overwhelming.
Developed in the early 21st century by Paul Gilbert, CFT is grounded in current understanding of basic emotion regulation systems: the threat and self-protection system, the drive and excitement system, and the contentment and social safeness system. Treatment sessions highlight the association between these systems and human thought and behaviour. The aim of CFT is to bring these three affect systems into balance (2014).
The primary therapeutic technique of CFT is compassionate mind training (CMT). CMT refers to the strategies typically used to help individuals experience compassion and foster different aspects of compassion for the self and others. CMT aims to develop compassionate motivation, sympathy, sensitivity, and distress tolerance with specific training and guided exercises designed to help individuals further develop non-judging and non-condemning attributes.
People in therapy might learn:
- Appreciation exercises or activities emphasising the things an individual enjoys. These exercises may include making a list of likes, taking time to savour the moment when something enjoyable is noticed, and other positive rewarding behaviours.
- Mindfulness or the ability to pay attention to the current moment in a non-judgmental manner.
- Compassion-focused imagery exercises or the use of guided memories to first stimulate the mind and then the physiological systems that stimulates the soothing system.
CFT can be helpful to people who find it challenging to understand, feel, or express compassion, as therapy can be a safe place in which to discover any reasons behind this difficulty and explore methods of positive change.
Regardless of the therapy above, using compassion is an alternative approach to helping oneself and improving interactions with others. By trying to be more compassionate to ourselves and others, we can not only improve our own mental wellbeing and self-kindness, but can also help to reduce the stigma often associated with mental illness that can limit one’s willingness to seek help when needed.
When it comes to conflict within oneself and with others, directing oneself towards compassion can feel a far reach. Yet as Muslims, compassion is a value that is central to many of Islam’s teachings.
The perfect example for us to live our lives (through authentic Sunnah) was a man known to be compassionate in many ahadith and in one particular, a sahaabah – radiAllahu ’anhu (companion – May Allah be pleased with him) saw that the eyes of the Prophet (ﷺ) streamed with tears when holding a sickly child:
“O Messenger of Allah! What is this?” He replied, “It is compassion which Allah has placed in the hearts of His slaves, Allah is Compassionate only to those among His slaves who are compassionate (to others)”.
Allah is as Al-Rahman (The Compassionate), it is important in our knowledge of Allah, and His Messenger is representative of His Mercy. Hence, the Prophet (ﷺ) himself is ‘rahmatan lil alamin’ (mercy of the worlds). Thus, compassion/mercy is a quality we should strive to attain.
The Qur’an, repeatedly, shows its sympathy for the weaker sections of the society in which it includes, among others: the orphans, the widows, the poor and the exploited, the slaves and other politically or socially and economically oppressed people. It emphasises different ways of helping them and this is all on the grounds of compassion. Compassion involves sensitivity to others suffering – a person cannot be compassionate unless he/she is sensitive to others suffering, this pertained to not only human beings but also animals and plants.
What is compassion to you and how could we improve upon our ability to be compassionate?