You may have experienced something traumatic in your life that is still impacting upon your adult well-being, such as losing a parent or a significant attachment figure, domestic violence in the home, being bullied, emotional and/or physical neglect, emotional, physical or sexual abuse. This experience or multiple experiences may have a significant impact on how you view yourself and the world around you.
You may have developed a very self-critical or even hostile view of yourself and worried that other people around you are likely to view you in the same way as you view yourself or maybe you are fearful that others might be hostile towards you. I am a huge fan of Kristen Neff’s work on self-compassion and I have written previously about shrinking the inner critic, which you can read about here.
This three-part blog series has so far introduced how childhood trauma is often manifested later on in life and how impacts on adult well-being (read part 1 here). The second post talked about how the body and the brain react to and hold a memory of childhood trauma (read it here). The final part of the series introduces the compassionate mind approach to healing internal wounds of the inner child.
Firstly, I’ll talk about the philosophy of the compassionate mind approach, how it can help you to develop those parts of the brain (self-soothing system of the brain) that may have been underdeveloped as a result of childhood trauma and/or emotional neglect. The internal wounds of the inner child can be healed by learning skills for self-soothing and acknowledging the needs and feelings of the inner child.
Compassion-focused Therapy (CFT) draws from neuroscience, evolutionary, developmental, social and Buddhist psychology (Gilbert, 2009). It was originally developed to help individuals who experience high levels of shame and are very self-critical, who struggle to self-sooth and feel compassion towards themselves. Previous research has linked these difficulties to anxious attachment patterns and early care-givers failing to be emotionally in tune with the child’s emotional needs.
CFT was also developed as a response to observation that many people who are highly self-critical and have high levels of shame are struggling to feel contented, safe or warm in their relationship with self and others. Therefore, CFT focused on developing the skills for self-soothing and being compassionate. This is about nurturing the inner child and learning to give to him/her what s/he needs and being compassionate about the struggles and pain of your inner child.
We have different emotion regulation systems: two of which are threat and compassion/soothing focused systems (Lee, 2012). The pre-frontal cortex is largely in charge of our emotions and soothing the system of the mind. It is developed with consistent, good enough parenting as we are growing up (Gerhardt, 2004). If you have been emotionally neglected as a child, these parts of the brain may be underdeveloped and it is more difficult for you to regulate your emotions and self-sooth when experiencing distress.
In people who have experienced a trauma or emotional neglect, the parts focused on the threat are over-activated and your mind is constantly looking for cues for threat relating to the trauma, as the motivation of the brain is to escape and keep you safe. At the same time, the parts of the brain that would offer soothing and compassion are under-active (Lee, 2012).
When developing the compassionate mind that has been previously overshadowed by the threatened and the traumatised mind, the motivation is to reduce distress and focus on actions and behaviours that promote well-being (e.g. self-care) and relieve suffering even if at times it might mean that we have to take a risk to try something different (Lee, 2012). Compassionate mind accepts that suffering is part of being a human being, and to a degree, our complex brain can add to the suffering, e.g. in the form of flashbacks.
Whilst the traumatised or threatened mind might be preoccupied with a potential threat or risk to oneself and having a mixture of feelings, such as anxiety, shame, guilt or fear, the compassionate mind focuses on having warm, supportive, kind feelings and connecting with the other. Compassionate mind accepts that anxiety and fear are a part of life, but they don’t dominate and whilst their role is lesser, they can be tolerated and they don’t overwhelm the brain.
The aim of compassionate mind approach is to develop those parts of the brain that deal with self-soothing so that the person can gradually start to feel safe and less triggered by the stimulus that in the past has caused to become distressed. It is suggested that caring behaviours can help to stimulate the soothing and safeness system in the brain (Gilbert, 2009). I hope that it is reassuring to know that the brain is able to adapt even after years of not receiving love and care.
Does the thought of becoming compassionate make you cringe when for a long time you have lived with perhaps self-blame, guilt and even self-disgust?
For a person who has experienced significant trauma and emotional neglect that has compromised their ability to self-sooth and be self-compassionate, the thought of becoming compassionate can be very daunting and even frightening. Being self-critical may have served as a protective mechanism for you over the years and changing that is understandably unsettling or even frightening.
Perhaps you feel that if you don’t constantly criticise and blame yourself, you will collapse and end up just lying on the sofa doing nothing. Neff (www.self-compassion.org) suggests that in fact by becoming self-compassionate you become more motivated to do good things for yourself and less energy is wasted on emotional distress caused by the criticism.
Your mind can be trained like a muscle to be more compassionate. Compassion focused therapy uses Mindfulness-based exercises to develop your soothing centre in the brain (Gilbert, 2009). On a very basic level, becoming aware of your bodily sensations, breathing and thoughts without judging or reacting to them teaches your mind about self-soothing and calming down those over-active parts of your brain (Lee, 2016).
Van der Kolk (2014) stated in his book that recovering from trauma requires initially becoming more aware of internal states and messages, and Mindfulness-based exercises can be very helpful with that. Once the person understands internal states it is easier to understand and separate external stimulus from the internal experiences. Similarly, Peter Levine who has developed Somatic Experiencing believes that traumatised individualised are carrying trauma in their body and in therapy the trapped energy and emotions are released.
The compassionate mind approach also teaches to create a safe place within your own mind that can help to cope with overwhelming situations. CFT for trauma uses visualisations to increase compassion, for example, imagining something or someone who would have all the characteristics of an object that brings comfort. The compassionate mind approach is about nurturing the inner child and learning to give the child what s/he needs now when you are an adult and able to do so. I have recorded a Self-compassion guided meditations and a Safe place guided visualisation. You may find particularly the Safe place exercise helpful as it teaches about creating an internal sense of safety. You can download both of the audio recordings from the Resource Library.
Once the compassionate brain has been strengthened and you able to look after your own needs better and have a more compassionate view of yourself and the world, the final part of CFT for trauma focuses on looking at flashbacks and other memories through the compassionate lens. The aim is that gradually the painful memories, images, and thoughts become less anxiety provoking and you can make peace with them without your brain and body being completely overwhelmed by them. The memories won’t disappear, but the aim is that they will lose their power over you.
First steps in becoming more compassionate
Developing the compassionate brain shares similarities with changing any other behaviour patterns. If you have, for example, in the past decided to change your eating and exercise habits, you have likely to have initially noted that something has to change, increased your knowledge about healthy eating and exercise, made preparations for understanding what needs to happen, identified support and broken down your goal into smaller steps.
In a similar way ask yourself:
What is it that you want to happen in terms of recovering from adverse childhood experiences? – How would you like to feel and be?
How committed are you to making changes in your life?
What kind of help do you need and who can help you?
Which steps do you need to take to improve your overall well-being and recover from those experiences that perhaps have haunted you for many years?
What can I do today to start becoming more Mindful in my life and body, and developing the self-soothing parts of the brain?
The first steps in recovery and developing the compassionate mind involves increasing understanding on how (childhood trauma) impacts us and the brain. So if you have read the three-part series, you can congratulate yourself, as you have already taken your first steps in recovery.
Hopefully, this post series has given you some hope that it is possible to recover from adverse childhood experiences. The aim of the series was to bring some clarity on how our body and mind react to trauma, the reasons why a person can be haunted by early negative experiences for many years later as well as how the compassionate mind approach can start to heal those internal wounds of the inner child.
If you are struggling with the impact of childhood trauma and/or emotional neglect, it is important for you to access support. Would you like to end your struggle, understand your emotional responses and find ways to heal the internal wounds of your inner child?
Contact to arrange a FREE 15 min phone consultation or BOOK ON-LINE where we can talk about how psychological therapy could help you. I look forward to hearing from you!
Dr Mari Kovanen, CPsychol, is a Counselling Psychologist with a specialist interest in childhood trauma & emotional neglect and relationships. She is in private practice in Central London and Reigate, Surrey, working with individuals and couples. firstname.lastname@example.org
Gerhardt, S. (2004). Why love matters: how affection shapes the baby’s brain
Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in psychiatric treatment, 15, 199-208.
Lee, D. (2012). The Compassionate Mind Approach to Recovering from Trauma (Eds. P. Gilbert).
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.
Neff, K. www.self-compassion.org
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma