The connection formed between therapist and client is a primary foundation that any psychotherapy encounter is built on. Positive regard, mutual respect, attunement speak to this but central to it all is compassion. Dimensions of this are given profound voice in many spiritual writings, especially those from Buddhist traditions but compassion as a human value spreads wide in other religions and cultures . It is from these realms that spirals can be drawn into the everyday human contact of psychotherapy.
Compassion utilized skillfully is resonance; a knowing that individuals have the resources and capacities available to them for their healing and as such, it’s self led. Compassion implies that each one of us is responsible for ourselves. That can be challenging. Who at one time or another hasn’t wanted or needed to be rescued? Or to do the rescuing? As Self led action, compassion begins at home; it’s a practice, not a result.
Compassion as a way of being in the world, has to be active and engaged with. It’s not about identification or merger. We’d all like to undo the harm we hear others having fallen to but that’s not something we’re able to do. Bearing witness to the traumatic past of others carries the risk of vicarious traumatization (also known as secondary stress response) in caregivers. That risk rises as the presence of boundaries goes down. Boundaries form an essential element of compassion. They give form and contour to experienced events vs. we becoming the events themselves, as in no separation. Boundaries form a demarkation of space between us as individuals as well as defining our personal space. A boundaried compassion allows us to hold an experience fully in all its intensity and aliveness vs. events and history enveloping us. This requires intention, attention and some risk.
Compassion offers us the potential to tap into the knowledge that suffering is inevitable, suffering alone is not. It differs from pity or sympathy which are subtly judgmental. It opens the field to the common ground that joins us as people – we’re all in this together – if we make the choice in heart, mind and gut to attend this unfolding life itself.
Copyright, 2009, by Peter Goetz