As practitioners, we’re well-acquainted with the fight, flight, freeze response – that automatic response that evolved to protect us from external threats or danger.
But what happens when the threat is internal? When the threat is painful emotions or distress?
Our response can still be automatic, and for many clients it can often be to fight.
But when ‘fight’ is how a client handles difficult emotions, the fight moves to within them. It can get expressed as self-criticism and self-blame – and that can lead to shame.
No longer are they only feeling bad, but they believe they are bad . . . and something’s wrong with them.
As a practitioner, you know how shame can trap clients in unending pain and suffering.
So what if you could give them a quick and simple practice to start them down the path to healing?
Well, check out the video below – Paul Gilbert, PhD shares the practice he uses to help clients understand how the mind works . . . and how that understanding can be transformative.
Take a look – it’s about 5 ½ minutes:
Dr. Gilbert: So, everything that you are has been built for you, you didn’t choose anything. You have two arms and two legs, your genes built those. You might be a woman or a man, you didn’t choose that. You have a head on top of your shoulders, you didn’t choose that. You have a brain, you didn’t choose to have one of those, and in that brain, you’ve got capacities for anger, anxiety, depression, etc., but you didn’t choose any of that. You didn’t choose anything, actually. Your brain has capacities for feeling what you’re feeling, which have all been built for you, not by you. So, this is quite a revelation. The other thing we say to people is, “Look, if I had been kidnapped as a three-day-old baby into a violent drug gang, what would I be like today?” We get our clients to look at us and say, “So what would I be like? Think about it, really think about it.” And they might say, “Well you’d probably be quite violent and you might be into drugs big-time, you might be very wealthy, you might be dead.” All those things are possible. There is a totally different version of Paul Gilbert that would have emerged, had I grown up in a different environment. But I didn’t choose that environment. Not only with that, but that environment would turn genes off in my brain, it would do stuff to my oxytocin gene because we now know that the expression of our genes, called epigenetics, can be affected by our environment.
Who’s the real me, then, this one? Or the drug addict Paul Gilbert? The one with tattoos or the one without tattoos? There is no real “you” – that is an illusion. There are versions, we are just versions of patterns of electrochemical activity. What makes you “you” is this point of consciousness, not content. Content’s all been created for you, not by you. The more enlightened you become, the more aware, then you start not owning this stuff. My job is now not to blame myself for what’s going on in my brain, that isn’t my fault because it’s all been built, I didn’t choose any of it. If I was on Alpha Centauri, maybe I’d have a totally different set of emotions have different colors and so on. So I don’t choose it, but this is my responsibility. My responsibility is to get to know this mind as best I can and try as best I can to be helpful, not harmful. I have to not blame myself of my potential to be harmful, but I don’t want to act that out in the world. So this distinction between helping people not shame and blame but take responsibility because your brain is potentially a very dangerous thing. It’s like driving a car, don’t just get in a car and drive it. Learn how to drive it, otherwise you’re a danger on the road. But that’s unfortunately true for our minds, if we don’t learn about them, we can be a danger because we can be a danger to ourselves, the way we think, and the desire to kill ourselves or drink or cut or criticize, and we can be a danger to others. We lose our temper and we’re horrible to people or whatever it is. These are really important things. What we find is for our clients, just nobody’s ever told them that. I mean, the number of times I’ve had clients say, “Nobody’s told me that. I always just thought there was something bad about me.” One client many years ago said, “I always thought when God made me, he’d run out of the nice bits. I was always told in my family that I was just the black sheep, I was always told that there was something wrong with me. In my last therapy I went to, I was told I had an emotional disorder. I’m screwed up. So we say,
“No, no, no, forget about all that stuff. There are these programs in your brain, which, through no fault of your own, are running. If you’ve grown up in a threatening environment, those are the programs that will run. What we will help you do is to start to be aware of them and then how to switch into a compassionate mental state, which will help you with those systems in your brain.”
Dr. Buczynski: Notice how Paul lays out a map for clients that includes the three points that we just discussed. We don’t choose how our brains think, we don’t choose how and in what context we’re born or how we grow up, and we don’t design what’s happening at the present moment because many of those things are out of our control. “May I be helpful, not harmful” is a precept embodied in the reality check because it helps clients recognize that they don’t have to allow their minds to take them hostage nor to govern their actions.
Dr. Gilbert’s practice is powerful because it can set the stage for de-pathologizing and reducing the shame caused by self-criticism and blame.
We’ll be getting into several other key compassion practices you can use in your work with clients in this week’s session in The Clinical Application of Compassion program.
You can learn more when you sign up right here.
But for now, I’d like to hear from you. How might this or other compassion practices help your clients?