“How dare you?” I roar, my face pink with rage. The man sitting in front of me beams encouragement, as I bellow: “I’m right, you’re wrong! You should apologise!”
I’ve just met clinical psychologist Dr Charlie Heriot-Maitland, and he’s utterly delightful.
But as part of my first session of Compassion Focused Therapy, a pioneering treatment which aims to make me kinder to myself and could soon be available on the National Health Service, I first have to explore my angry self.
Dr Heriot-Maitland, co-director of Balanced Minds, in London, has asked me to think of a recent argument and, as it happens, I’m shaken from a hostile exchange with a friend the day before.
He encourages me to re-experience the row purely through my anger, hence the shouting.
“We’re formed of multiple parts, or selves,” says Dr Heriot-Maitland. The aim is to balance these selves, but ultimately, to bring the kind self to prominence, and let it oversee and influence the other parts.
Strange as it is, dividing myself into component emotions, where “angry” me is separate from “kind” me, gives a sense of control. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by my emotions, they seem more manageable.
Arguments aren’t the only situation in which “fearful me” gets the better of “compassionate me”. Ever since my children were little, my reflex reaction to any perceived threat has been anger.
When Caspar, my youngest, disappeared in the park as a toddler, for 10 terrifying minutes, I reacted this way. When I finally found him, emerging from the trees behind the playground, I shouted: “Where were you?”
He’d been equally frightened at losing me, and burst into tears. Of course, what he needed was a cuddle. But fear can so easily override compassion.
Yet, until I stepped into Dr Heriot-Maitland’s office, this wasn’t clear to me. I meanly suspected that Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) was a fluff-filled, airy-fairy concept.
In fact, it is based on sound evidence including the attachment theory (the nature of our bond with our primary caregiver from birth, and how this affects our emotional and behavioural development).
The General Medical Council is funding Dr Heriot-Maitland’s research into CFT at King’s College London, with a view to the therapy being available on the NHS one day.
Dr Heriot-Maitland explains that we’re all born with an instinct to seek closeness. When we bond with someone caring, we feel safe.
Think of babies: “The human brain is wired to be calmed down in the face of loving, caring kindness including all the associated voice tones, facial expressions, and touch,” he says. This applies whether you’re 5 or 50.
Yet, although we instinctively know that a compassionate approach is best, we’re resistant. Easier to repress the misery and crack on.
It takes strength to be compassionate, insists Dr Heriot-Maitland. “It’s much easier to avoid distressing emotions.” Anger, by comparison, is often a defence.
To help locate my compassionate self, Dr Heriot-Maitland says, we’ll “create the conditions in the body and mind” which help us to feel kind, wise, strong.
A clue: This doesn’t involve scowling, arms crossed. I sit up straight, feet square, shoulders back. We both adopt a wise half-smile, as opposed to a foolish grin.
We also work on my breathing. “You’d be amazed,'” says Dr Heriot-Maitland, “at the number of people who only know how to breathe in an anxious or angry way – in shallow, short breaths – which is the body preparing for fight or flight, trying to get more oxygen in quickly.”
By slowing down our breathing, he says, “we can start calming down the threat system”.
Most of us, says Dr Heriot-Maitland, breathe in and out around 12 times per minute. Yet, US research found that pacing our breath to about six inhalations and six exhalations per minute is optimal for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
As a distressed baby can be calmed by a mother’s soothing touch and loving tone, we as adults, can learn to “benignly parent ourselves”, as Dr Heriot-Maitland puts it, with that same kindness.
We have the brain wiring. We just have to activate it.
This involves taming your inner critic. Dr Heriot-Maitland enquires what I think I’d be like without my critic. My answer: “Probably happier, but slovenly.”
We laugh, but I realise that voice serves a purpose, for instance, preventing me from being lazy (“you’re such a sloth, go for a swim”) or selfish (“that man’s elderly, get your fat backside off this seat”).
While our inner critic is essentially protective, she’s often driven by shame, fear of failure, or rejection. So, her method is unhelpful and keeps us in “threat” mode, where we’re fearful and stressed. We’ve got to gently persuade her to be less harsh.
Dr Heriot-Maitland suggests my “compassionate self” embarks on a friendly chat with my critic.
I’ve got to jump between the two chairs in his office, earnestly acting out both roles. I feel silly, but I don’t mind.
My homework is to write a kind letter to her. At the moment, I just want to shake her. Clearly, cultivating your compassionate self takes time.
But following CFT, my mood lightens. I feel more content and more confident.
Later, when my teenage son reports that a woman shoved him on the bus, I soothe and hug, rather than showing my anger and anxiety.
My son thanks me for making him feel better. Even my inner critic is impressed. Maybe my letter will be kind after all.
By Anna Maxted
SOURCE: NZ Herald