Could increasing our compassion for others be even more "therapeutic" than increasing our self-compassion?
Last updated on 26th October 2017
"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself." Ralph Waldo Emerson
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." Viktor Frankl
I'm on a train heading down from Edinburgh to Derby. Fields covered in snow, leafless winter trees. I'm due to go to a workshop tomorrow with Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focused Therapy. I did a three day course with Paul back in 2005 and I've heard him speak on a number of occasions since, so why am I going again for what is billed just as "An Introduction to Compassion Focused Therapy" tomorrow? Well there are four reasons. One is that this is the first workshop put on by the British Association of Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) Special Interest Group on Compassion, which I helped to set up last year, and I'd like to show solidarity. Secondly it may give me a chance to visit my sister who lives just outside Derby (although the snow is making this something of a toss up). Thirdly I'm hoping that I will get a bit of an update tomorrow on where Compassion Focused Therapy has got to in the eight or so years since the initial three day workshop I did. And fourthly (and this is the trigger for this blog post) it nudges me to think more broadly around the whole subject of compassion.
When I use "compassion" and "caring" as keywords to search my own personal database, I retrieve well over 450 articles. Interestingly the vast majority are from just the last two or three years. As I browse through the abstracts, I'm struck by all kinds of thoughts and one is how ... as psychotherapists ... we are maybe focusing too much on self-compassion and not enough on compassion for others. Jennifer Crocker is a standard bearer for this viewpoint. In her paper "The paradoxical consequences of interpersonal goals: Relationships, distress, and the self", she writes "People often try to manage the impressions others have of them so others will have high regard for them. What are the consequences of chronically having self-image goals in ongoing relationships? A program of research examining the effects of self-image goals and contrasting them with compassionate goals focused on supporting others is described. Results from two longitudinal studies indicated that self-image goals have negative effects on relationships, and paradoxically decrease the regard others have for the self, self-esteem, and mental health. In contrast, compassionate goals focused on promoting the well-being of others have positive effects on relationships, and paradoxically increase others' regard, self-esteem and mental health. Discussion considers why self-image goals persist if they have clear negative consequences, and why people do not shift to more constructive compassionate goals in light of their benefits." I wrote about her work back in 2008 and she has published plenty since. If you'd like to, try assessing yourself on Crocker's "Compassionate & self-image goals scale".
Our relationships with other people are so crucially important for our wellbeing, for our stress & depression levels, for our physical health, and even for how long we live - see the recent meta-analysis reported in "Strong relationships improve survival as much as quitting smoking" with it's abstract reading "Having strong social relationships seems to have an effect on survival comparable to that of quitting smoking and larger than controlling traditional risk factors, such as obesity or hypertension. A meta-analysis of social relationships and mortality looked at 308,849 participants aged 63.9, on average, at baseline; 29% died during the follow-up of 7.5 years. Overall, strong social relationships improved the odds of survival by 50%." And psychotherapy approaches focusing on improving relationships seem often to be especially helpful - the abstract of "Psychotherapy for depression in adults: a meta-analysis of comparative outcome studies" comments "The authors conducted 7 meta-analyses (with a total of 53 studies) in which 7 major types of psychological treatment for mild to moderate adult depression (cognitive-behavior therapy, nondirective supportive treatment, behavioral activation treatment, psychodynamic treatment, problem-solving therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, and social skills training) were directly compared with other psychological treatments. Each major type of treatment had been examined in at least 5 randomized comparative trials. There was no indication that 1 of the treatments was more or less efficacious, with the exception of interpersonal psychotherapy (which was somewhat more efficacious; d = 0.20) and nondirective supportive treatment (which was somewhat less efficacious than the other treatments; d = -0.13)." There are similar suggestions that relationship-focused approaches may be a little more effective as well for the prevention of depression than psychotherapies that target relationships less - "Preventing the onset of depressive disorders: A meta-analytic review of psychological interventions".
And it's kindness, empathy, warmth, and compassion for others that seems at the heart of these benefits. Of course this is central to the care giving parent-child relationship that anchors so much in our lives as human beings. The "Parental bond inventory" emphasises the centrality of this care giving in healthy parenting, while the "Intimate bond measure" extends the core importance of caring into adult couple relationships (see the "Relationships" page in the Good Knowledge section of the website for more on these scales).
Another very interesting scale in this area is Elizabeth Pommier's "Compassion scale" (given here with typical scores). Pommier studied with Kristin Neff (of "Self-compassion scale" fame) and more details of this questionnaire are also given in the "Scales for researchers" section of Neff's "Self-compassion" website. In her research she found (in the general population) that there seemed to be no link for young people between how they scored themselves on a compassion measure and how they scored themselves on a self-compassion measure. For adults (especially males) there was a stronger connection (especially for regular meditators) - see "The relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern among college undergraduates, community adults, and practicing meditators" with its abstract reading "The present study examined the link between self-compassion and concern for the well-being of others. Other-focused concern variables included compassion for humanity, empathetic concern, perspective taking, personal distress, altruism and forgiveness. Participants included 384 college undergraduates, 400 community adults, and 172 practicing meditators. Among all participant groups, higher levels of self-compassion were significantly linked to more perspective taking, less personal distress, and greater forgiveness. Self-compassion was linked to compassion for humanity, empathetic concern, and altruism among community adults and meditators but not college undergraduates. The strength of the association between self-compassion and other-focused concern also varied according to participant group and gender. The strongest links tended to be found among meditators, while women tended to show weaker associations than men."
Kindness spreads ... it's a "glue" for social groups
More to follow soon ...
"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the "Universe", a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security." Albert Einstein
Stinson, D. A., J. J. Cameron, et al. (2009). "Deconstructing the "reign of error": interpersonal warmth explains the self-fulfilling prophecy of anticipated acceptance." Pers Soc Psychol Bull 35(9): 1165-78.
People's expectations of acceptance often come to create the acceptance or rejection they anticipate. The authors tested the hypothesis that interpersonal warmth is the behavioral key to this acceptance prophecy: If people expect acceptance, they will behave warmly, which in turn will lead other people to accept them; if they expect rejection, they will behave coldly, which will lead to less acceptance. A correlational study and an experiment supported this model. Study 1 confirmed that participants' warm and friendly behavior was a robust mediator of the acceptance prophecy compared to four plausible alternative explanations. Study 2 demonstrated that situational cues that reduced the risk of rejection also increased socially pessimistic participants' warmth and thus improved their social outcomes.