New Compassion Focused Therapy: Teaching vulnerability and balance for students

“The LDS culture is particularly good at [having compassion for others] but giving ourselves compassion often feels selfish,” says professor and department chair of psychology Gary Burlingame. “Receiving compassion from others is also difficult for some of us because it… doesn’t fit our self-reliant and perfectionistic values.”

Professor Burlingame and Professor Kara Cattani, Clinical Director of BYU Counseling and Psychology Services, have created a therapy model for college students based on their studies in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). “There are 3 flows of compassion,” says Burlingame. “Two ‘in’ (self-compassion and compassion from others) and one ‘out’ (compassion to others).”

Cattani and Burlingame’s model aims to help students move from shaming and blaming to a productive method of changing the mind. “Shame and blame are… whole-person evaluations that are negative. Shame/blame talk uses words like ‘you’re worthless, stupid, incompetent, never going to succeed’—in short, they involve global, whole person condemnation, often for a single behavioral failing.”

Especially at a place like BYU, we all are influenced by our inner critic to some extent. Accepting compassion from others and allowing ourselves to fail requires a vulnerability that might be buried beneath perfectionism. “Once a person is willing to engage in a flow which embraces one’s own vulnerability which can be uncomfortable, the second… measure is behavior activation or action. In the case of compassion from others this would look like reaching out to others—letting them know our need and being willing to receive compassion.”

Being at peace in your mind is more than loving yourself; it’s learning to allow others to love you too. Cattani and Burlingame’s therapy model opens this pathway through compassion and vulnerability. “Students had an increase in their ability to engage in difficult emotions and behaviorally balance self-criticism with self-compassion,” says Burlingame. “This was evidenced by change in bio-markers, such as heart rate variability, for those who learned to increase their compassion flows.”

As the research testifies, if everyone is deserving of empathy in their struggles, you are too. Breaking down walls is painful, but the love that can come through the holes and cracks is worth it.

“The notion of common humanity teaches us that we are part of the human race and should treat ourselves as we would treat others rather than holding ourselves to a higher standard,” says Burlingame. “We, just like our neighbor, need to receive the three flows of compassion.”

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