Compassion and self-compassion

Compassion literally means to co-suffer, or to ‘suffer with’. It has been defined as the feelings that arise in us when we are confronted with the suffering of others and, which trigger an urge or motivation to alleviate that suffering. Self-Compassion thus, can be taken to mean extending compassion to ourselves when we experience suffering, pain or when we feel inadequate and, taking actions to relieve our suffering. Kristin Neff who based her formulation of self-compassion on Buddhist teachings proposes that self-compassion is composed of three main components, namely: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

She defines self-kindness as being warm towards ourselves when faced with pain and shortcomings rather than ignoring our feelings or resorting to harsh self-criticism. Common humanity, she proposes involves recognizing that suffering and feelings of personal failure are part of what makes us human. They are part of a shared human experience. Finally, Neff conceptualises mindfulness as the act of being balanced towards our emotions and feelings by neither suppressing nor exaggerating them. To Neff, this is about observing with openness and non-judgementally  ‘negative’ or difficult feelings.

Compassion focussed therapy

Compassion Focussed Therapy (Gilbert, 2005) is an evidence based framework centred on self-compassion. It is currently the main model which has operationalised the use of self-compassion for clinical/therapeutic purposes with impressive results for various manifestations of psychological distress. CFT was designed to work with individuals who experience high levels of shame and self-criticalness. It may be described as an integrative framework in that it integrates ‘techniques’ and thoughts from various psychological models including cognitive behavioural therapy, relational approaches, Buddhist psychology, and neuroscience. The central therapeutic technique of CFT is ‘compassionate mind training’, which teaches the skills and attributes of self-compassion.

Figure 1 The emotional regulation System (Gilbert, 2005) 

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In summary, CFT proposes that human beings have inherited an emotional regulation system (Figure 1 above) made of three main components: a ‘threat system’ focussed on dangers, a ‘drive system’ which motivates us to achieve or compete, and a ‘soothing system’ which promotes safeness and connectedness. Each system is posited to be associated with specific ‘feeling-states’, motivations, purposes, and corresponding neuro-chemical phenomena. The balanced use of all three of those systems is believed to be required for optimal psychological functioning. In individuals with high levels of shame, self-criticalness or who tend to be hostile towards themselves however, the ‘soothing system’ is not easily accessible or is under-developed.

As a result, these individuals are believed to have difficulties experiencing reassurance and safeness because the neural systems that activate such feelings are thought to have been underused often, because of abuse, neglect, or other chronic experiences of being at risk. Those experiences have made such individuals essentially learn to resort to using self-criticism and shame to manage psychological distress and pain. One may say, they have internalised the hostility of their environments and come to relate to themselves in the same way the world has treated them. ‘Compassionate mind training’ helps clients to counter such tendencies by developing compassion for themselves and others. It includes guided exercises to foster compassionate skills and attributes such as: ‘distress tolerance’, self-kindness, and/or self-soothing.

Self-compassion and Blackness

The belief that ‘therapy is for white people’ is a persistent one within Black communities (Black here is intended to designate communities of the African diaspora: those ethnic groups who descent from Africa, although this model may be more relevant to Black groups who live in contexts were they are minoritised). Of course, there is much truth to this notion, mainstream psychotherapy models generally take little account of race and racism and their effect upon the psychological world of people of colour. Many have asserted that white culture forms the foundation of the theory, research and practice of mainstream psychology which as a result may be charged with upholding whiteness. White culture has been taken to refer to ‘the synthesis of ideas, values, norms, beliefs, and behaviours’ centred on or created by descendants of white European ethnic groups. Whiteness may be conceptualised as the production and reproduction of the dominance, and privilege of people racialised as white.

Though current models do recognise that shame based self-relating tends to develop within abusive, neglectful or threatening relational contexts, they are not exempt from this criticism. Shame even within CFT has been largely removed from broader socio-political contexts resulting in unduly individualistic formulations. However, distinctively from dominant groups, people who are racialised as Black (and other people of colour) often experience shame because of their otherness, because of their Blackness.

This shame is largely the result of trying to fit into a white society which consistently tells us implicitly or explicitly that our Blackness is inferior, threatening or otherwise problematic and that we must assimilate into Eurocentric ideals to be acceptable, to be human; alienating us from parts of ourselves which many of us then come to despise.

In other words, race related shame is a by-product of power structures and of racialised social hierarchies. In that sense, we may argue that it is a powerful tool of social control which serves the interests of white groups. Indeed, feeling ashamed of our Blackness or of our ancestry reinforces whiteness and the subjugation of Black people and of people of colour.

A Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy model would thus have at its core the socio-political and historical origin of race related feelings of shame and/or distress racialised groups experience trying to survive in a white supremacist culture and their social functions. Further, whilst there is an explicit acknowledgement of the impact of unsafeness or recurrent stressors in the creation of shame and self-criticalness as ways of self-relating within self-compassion frameworks, the centrality of axes of oppression such as racism in creating feeling of unsafeness has received little attention. But racism is abuse. Racism is a threatening stressor. Racism is trauma.

Self-compassion and humanity

Neff ‘s conceptualisation of self-compassion reminds us that ‘the very definition of being human means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect’. Facing feelings of inadequacy may be particularly painful for many people of colour because of internalised racism. Admitting them may be seen to amount to accepting racist notions of inferiority or increase our sense of vulnerability in the world.

Self-compassion may reengage us in our humanity. Treating ourselves harshly when we are experiencing pain, not attending to our suffering when we feel inadequate and silencing these experiences disconnects us further from our humanity, it isolates us. From a socio-political perspective, by harshly treating ourselves, we essentially do the ‘masters’ work: we dehumanise ourselves and reproduce societal contempt towards Black and Brown bodies.

People of colour particularly Black people have historically been expected to spend much of their existence attending to the needs of others, caring for ourselves or being kind to ourselves have been at odd with social constructions and dehumanising beliefs around inferiority or worthlessness. Further, Black people have historically, had to focus so much on surviving that we may not necessarily have created a culture of self-nurture or self-care. For these reasons, centring our needs and experiences have become radical acts defying social expectations of servitude, subservience and notions of insignificance.

Using compassion and self-compassion as a way to relate to ourselves and each other also seem consistent with more Afrocentric worldviews. Striking similarities between the Buddhist conceptualisations of self-compassion and Ubuntu philosophy can be made. Ubuntu roughly translates as ‘human kindness’ though, several definitions of the worldview exist. Ubuntu posits that society gives human beings their humanity. It proposes that a person can only be a person through other people and because of their recognition.

Being is therefore envisaged as a process by which we become aware of the us in others and the others is in us. Ubuntu places emphasis on the intersubjective nature of our human experiences. Humanity is seen as quality we give to each other. ‘We are because you are’ or  ‘I am because we are’ encapsulate the spirit of Ubuntu which closely link to the notion of interbeing within compassion frameworks and more eastern-centric philosophies. Both emphasise the state of being inter-connected to others and the world moment to moment, but also to the past (e.g. our ancestors) and to a co-constructed future.

Centring Blackness

The lived reality of race remains a factor that profoundly shapes the lives of people of colour. The visibility of Blackness and its loaded history continues to have deleterious consequences on life opportunities, course and expectancy. The invisibility of the impact of racism both historically and contemporarily on the psychological functioning of people of colour contributes to the marginalisation and silencing of formative race related experiences and their trauma, directly feeding into shame and internalised racism.

Further, some evidence suggests therapy which explicitly includes cultural content may lead to increased intimate disclosures, greater willingness to self-refer, seek help and greater satisfaction than those models that use so called ‘universal’ content. There is therefore a strong case for expressly integrating Blackness or race related experiences within the ‘emotional regulation systems’ and indeed compassion based models.

Race related life events such as witnessing or experiencing racial assaults, harassment, institutional racism, discrimination have long been linked to feeling unsafe, hypervigilant and even suspicious/culturally paranoid. Racial oppression can lead to the distrust of white people. Whilst this mistrust is adaptive and serves a protective function e.g. alerting individuals to the threat of race related discrimination or assaults, this apprehension can translate in many people of coulour recurrently experiencing the world from a young age as hostile, unsafe and/or dangerous. Such experience would presumably lead to an inflated or more reactive ‘threat system’.

Similarly, the ‘drive system’ may also be affected by race. The internalisation of racism can often mean that racial minorities are raised to prove that they are good enough, the notion that we must work twice as hard, to simply be deemed good enough by white society is still propagated and arguably grounded in reality. The belief that any ‘failure’ would confirm racial stereotypes or bring shame onto our family or the in-group, the constant striving for excellence (to defend against internalised racism or race related shame) or for socio-economic betterment in a context of structural disadvantage and racism, can translate in the drive system becoming over-used in an attempt to keep at bay feelings of shame and inadequacy and their related fears, positioning many of us towards achievement or competition rather than self-soothing.

To conclude, there are strong empirical and theoretical reasons to posit that Black groups and people of colour more generally, may benefit from interventions focussed on promoting, safeness and connectedness and that basing these interventions on Blackness appears particularly important. This is what the Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy model aims to achieve.

The (draft) formulation Model

Figure 2: Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy

Blackness centred self compassion

The above formulation diagram (figure 2) is proposed to make sense of race based shame and its connectedness to the historical and to the personal. Personal experiences of the world as racialised beings, (intersectional) experiences of racism and racial identity development may be explored. The formulation here aims to understand and explain survival or coping strategies which have been adopted in the context of white supremacy as a result of race based shame or trauma.

Race based shame here may be taken to  concern feelings of inadequacy which are related to racial otherness. They may encapsulate internalised racism and/or insecurities about intelligence, beauty, opportunities. Race based shame may also manifest in fears about expressing anger over injustice, over cultural expressions, or shame, over historical trauma/violence or contemporary inequality.

Race based trauma, on the other hand refers more broadly to the psychological distress which may have been/be experienced as a result of being exposed to racism. Both phenomena are related of course, and will necessarily give rise to survival strategies (e.g. assimilation, resistance, striving for excellence) thus, in turn affect ’emotional regulation’ (drive, threat and soothing systems). The Blackness Centred formulation diagram allows various levels of human functioning, as affected by whiteness; from the micro to the macro to, be examined.


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4 thoughts

  1. Hello, I loved reading this first draft and look forward to the next few revisions. I have two questions about the material. One: will the next few drafts have comparison sections between black men and black women?

    You spoke on feelings of inadequacy related to racial otherness and we know that the way black women experience racism differs from the way black men experience it. This combined with feeling alienated by mainstream society and often times our own community (in regards to beauty, intelligence, desirability, being considered ‘mules’, etc.) can also effect the way black women approach self-care.

    Two: one of the aims is to understand coping strategies such as assimilation and resistance. I was thinking about that in regards to education and intelligence. From my own personal experience and the stories of others that I’ve come across there seems to be this thing within the black community where we’re teased by our own people and told that if we make good grades or show signs of advanced intelligence that we’re either trying to be white or aren’t really black.

    So there’s the internalized need to assimilate and prove our worth but also resisting to ‘prove’ our blackness. Attached to that is the concept that intelligence and blackness are not synonymous and how that message serves to make black people feel even more othered.

    I guess my question for the second point will be whether something like that will be touched upon or if it falls outside the scope of this project and its goal?

    Regardless, great work!

    1. Hi Merisoo and thank you so much!
      Yes to each point made. Very important points. There is indeed an aim to incorporate intersectionality and the ‘restriction of Blackness’ which is exactly about the need to be Black enough, not to ‘sell out’, indeed this is a source a great pain and shame. I could not possibly list all experiences linked to racial shame but, these are important and will be explicitly named. Thank you very much. Do please look out for DRAFT 2 and once more share your wisdom then! It’s really appreciated. Thank you.

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