The Centre for Healing Blog


Cultivating Unconditional Self-Compassion From a Trauma Informed Perspective - Part 2

change emotion mindfulness self-compassion Jun 19, 2024
change, self-compassion, emotions

Click here to read part 1 of the blog.

The Paradox of Change

Part of the paradox of change is that the more we try to change, the more we stay the same. What you resist persists! What you reject you become! This is a fundamental tenet of gestalt psychotherapy’s paradoxical theory of change. And paradoxically, the more we notice, be curious and stay embodied with and present to where we are, the more we naturally change, unfolding into our potential and becoming more integrated.

Change happens through the process of including and allowing our experience to be as it is. It happens when we learn to get out of our own way. From this place we can naturally transcend and include it at the same time. This is the process of change. The only way out, is through as we say in gestalt. The paradox is that the more you integrate your experience, the more you welcome it home (in a safe way- more on this coming) the more you naturally disidentify from it. You are no longer caught in it. As soon as you see it, you don’t have to be it! You become the witness to it and discover there is some part of you bigger than the content of your experience.

A.H Almaas, founder of the diamond approach says, the most natural way to become who you are (your true nature), is to be exactly where you are! So, it turns out, instead of trying to feel better, we need to get better at feeling into exactly where we are and to then let go of the hope that our experience should be any different to what it is. Easier said that done! The more we do this with curiosity and kind understanding, we naturally dis-identify and unblend from the experience we were previously stuck in. More space opens up naturally, and we feel more integration and freedom. This doesn’t mean we have to like it! It just means we stop rejecting it. Some experiences are very painful and difficult to sit with, so why would we like it.

However, if we can make space for it, to let go of struggling with it, we can discover that experience naturally flows through us and moves towards completion. All the difficult and challenges experiences we have faced and experienced pave the way for who we become and grow into. The obstacle becomes that path as the Zen Buddhists often say. The irony is that instead of finding freedom ‘from’ our experience, we find freedom within it. We don’t get rid of our experience, we get with it, embody it, and it naturally transforms.

One of my favorite poems captures what I’m trying to say beautifully

When effort and judgement are cleared away,
that which is itself, will of itself, become itself.
- Taoist saying

One drop at a time - Dosing the level of self-compassion with titration and pendulation while staying in the window of tolerance

You might be thinking that this wonderful idea of ‘welcoming the unwelcome’ (see Pema Chodron’s book) might sound well and good in theory, but how do I do this if facing my feelings and body sensations feels like I’m opening a trap door to hell! What if facing my feelings sends me off the cliff! For trauma survivors, we know that the practice of staying with our disturbing experience goes against the grain of our survival conditioning and is not easy to say the least. Many of our clients have highly dysregulated nervous systems and are in a deep core dilemma about reconnecting to their feelings and body. Infact, for many even the idea of learning to connect to themselves can activate a fear response.

As Bruce Tift, author of ‘Already free – Buddhism meets psychotherapy on the path to liberation’ likes to say, befriending our emotions is counter-instinctual and counter-cultural. This is especially true for trauma survivors. Our normal and natural instinct, intensified by trauma conditioning is to want to get away from painful feelings and sensations and to live above the eyebrows, or disconnected from our bodies.

So how do we integrate the teachings of mindfulness and self-compassion in a way that is trauma informed, and doesn’t blow up our systems. The most important skill I have learnt as a trauma therapist is to help my clients learn track their nervous systems and window of tolerance and to titrate (touch into a little bit) the amount of activation they are feeling. This is a version of turning down the dimmer switch in EP. This means, instead of saying, “lets welcome that feeling’, I might ask instead, using invitational language, “Is it tolerable to be with just a drop of that feeling and see what happens next”. Can you feel just 2% of that grief…fear…anger…. right now, and then lets pendulate your attention back to your resource. What happens if you just touch into the edges of that feeling, and then touch back out to the resource of that tree outside the window”.

The practice of tracking the nervous system, titrating and pendulating back to a resource is a useful skill in complementing self-compassion work. Because self-compassion can lead to expansion and more openness, we need to pace this process, as many feelings can arise quite quickly in a way that can be overwhelming. Keep asking your clients, are we going at a pace that is tolerable for you. Remember, our clients need brakes before they put on the accelerator.

Using the body to contain strong emotions supports co-habitation

Experience is naturally self-liberating when we stay present with it in our bodies. Most of us on a healing path are beginning to learn this. When we stay fully present to the charge of our feelings in our body (without going into our minds), by recognizing, naming and allowing them, we often discover that they tend to flow through us in waves, often in a matter of a few minutes.

In my experience, this process is powerfully supported and kept safe by the practice of ‘embodied containment’ – consciously inviting the charge of intense feelings to spread out and expand into our arms, belly and legs using your breath and movement to support this. (Read – The practice of embodying emotions - by Raja Selvam). This allows the whole body to be a container and holder for our feelings, which makes it much easier to tolerate and mitigate re-traumatization. This is a form of co-habitation in EP work. Noticing and naming our feelings also gets our frontal lobes on line and calms down the reptilian brain. If you can name it, you can tame it as Dan Siegel famously says.

In my view, the path of integration involves learning to become aware of and then to ‘be embodied with’ these unpleasant sensations and emotions, to breathe into and hang with them, without getting caught up in any fixed storyline about them. Can you do the counter- instinctual move to witness, label, allow and tolerate the intensity of these painful feelings and sensations (using titration and pendulation skills), and to suspend the compulsion to go into your thoughts about them e.g figuring them out, judging them, fixing or jumping to conclusions about them.

To support containment of emotions, can we invite all of our body – our arms, legs, feet, hands and belly to be a container to sit with the intense wave of our feelings, at the sensation level and let it flow through us. To go one step deeper, listen to the message in your feelings – what are they here to tell you about what you need to feel in more balanced and complete. This is true unconditional self-acceptance, which leads to the confidence that we can befriend all of our feelings with kindness. If we are not afraid of our feelings, we not afraid of life, because facing life fully means being willing to feel everything!




Self-compassion is supported by self-regulation

If we can cultivate more ventral vagal capacity, we automatically support the neuro-platform for self-compassion and acceptance. From a ventral place we can learn to witness and allow dorsal or sympathetic energy without getting lost in it. But, what gets in the way of your self-regulation and cultivating ventral vagal capacity?

Neuroscientists have discovered that due to our evolutionary history of growing up around constant danger, our neuro-ception has become more strongly wired to look for and notice the threats than safety. As Rick Hanson famously says, we are ‘Teflon for the good and velco for the bad’. We are more likely to notice and fixate on the one negative experience that happened at a social gathering, rather than all the moments of positive connection and safety. We so easily fixate on what is wrong and what needs improvement in ourselves or others. Where do you get most hooked into this pattern of noticing what’s wrong with yourself or the world? e.g. With your work, your relationships, your parenting, your lifestyle choices, your body, your friendships, your personality?

This negativity bias survival instinct is wired into our primitive brain, and exacerbated by trauma and attachment disruptions. Trauma naturally leaves people feeling dys-regulated in their nervous system and generally skews their neuro-ception towards noticing threat and over-looking cue of safety, or if your more dorsal dominant, numbing out to threat all together which is also maladaptive. Its natural and partly adaptive to notice threat when in proportion to the situation were in, but what if this survival function of expecting or numbing out to danger is stuck on ‘on’ all the time? The more we get hyper-focussed on what’s wrong or where the threat is, the more we strengthen those same fear based neural pathways and trigger more stress hormones into our system (e.g cortisol and adrenalin). This perpetuates hyper- arousal and over time, when chronic, can give rise to stress related symptoms e.g body tension, lowered immunity, digestive problems etc.). We may also overlook the support and safety that is actually here because were too busy expecting threat!

Notice the support that’s already here

So, what can we do about this? When you have awareness of your trauma’s survival drives and negativity bias’s you have more choice to then practice balancing and putting your attention on the opposite – What's good, nurturing and or working for you in your life? Can you take a moment to appreciate what are some of your good qualities and inner capacities, and where you perceive the absence of threat? The more you put your attention on your capacities, or what supports you, the more your threat perception system starts to relax. A key principle here is that the mind takes its shape by what you pay attention too. With awareness, you can shape your brain by directing your attention in new and supportive ways! An antidote to trauma and the power of the negativity bias is to pay more attention to what supports, nurtures, gives us pleasure, connection and satisfaction. Deb Dana, a well known author on poly vagal theory, calls these experiences ‘Glimmers’. Glimmers support the development of ventral vagal capacity. Instead of focussing just on the triggers, focus on the glimmers.

When we pay attention to something that supports us (co-regulates us), can we let this become fleshed out through our 5 senses, and then to allow the feeling to become absorbed into our body awareness. When we notice something that opens our heart, touches us, or gives us pleasure or support can we stay with this feeling and let it land in our felt sense one drop at a time e.g patting your dog. This is the foundational principle of how we develop positive neuro-plasticity. When we pay attention to the good, we start to rewire our brain and develop neural pathways that support the development of regulation, well-being and happiness in the brain circuits.

Overtime, with repeated practice, ventral vagal capacity will develop and we experience more internal regulation and coherence. When these brain circuits develop, we start to shift our mood from pessimism to optimism, from shame to acceptance, and ultimately attract more pleasure and nourishment into our lives. This sense of well-being then then supports and invites better personal and professional relationships and we develop positive relational feedback loops.

Life supports you

As already mentioned, its easy and natural to focus on what’s not working. With some tongue and cheek, I call things that don’t work in my life, embuggerments! The things that get in the way of life flowing harmoniously! Without dismissing the embuggerments and the many injustices, horrors and difficult things in life, what if we also balance this out with taking a moment to appreciate how the intelligence of life is already supporting you without any effort on your part.

Life has given you a brain to discern, problem solve, appreciate and make sense of things, and a body to keep you alive, help you move, act, contact and sense the life around you. It may not be perfect, but your immune system, circulatory system, respiratory system, digestive system and many other systems and organs in your body are all designed to support you, and to keep you alive. Isn’t this an amazing thing! The universe has created a planet that has created just the right amount of atmospheric gases and pressure to support you.

This planet has developed plants to create oxygen and absorb CO2, animals to support you, a blue sky, clouds to provide rain, green grass, trees, forests and sunshine. Even our crazy society supports us in many ways with roads, cafes, super-markets, helpful technology. I know not of this is perfect and that there can be challenges and limitations in all of these things, but there is also a lot of support that life gives us. Can you practice noticing what can you be grateful for, what you appreciate, do well, and where you feel supported by life? What can you savour in your life that is pleasurable, soothing, empowering, supportive, safe and caring? This practice can be powerful anti-dote to contradict and update the trauma generated beliefs and identities. we may have developed over our lifetimes.

Please note –the practice of taking in the good can be scary, as some of us are scared to feel too good, in case it gets taken away and leaves us disappointed. Hence some unconsciously decide that its safer to feel unhappy.


Peace & Blessing,
Noel Haarburger - Embodied Processing Trainer.


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