Compassion involves observing the suffering of another and feeling a desire to help alleviate the suffering. Compassion in a counseling setting is by nature non-judgmental, accepting, and grants what Carl Rogers labeled “unconditional positive regard.” This is what is extended to clients in a counseling setting. We as counselors believe you, our client, are capable of expressing difficult feelings and hurts that will heal the wounds life has created. We believe that you can achieve your dream of living in a way that is full, content, calm, and free. During this process, compassion embraces hope that the suffering experienced in the present moment will not always remain as it is today. No matter how bad things are right now, you can be assured that things will change. How they change is where the compassionate counseling process comes into play.
The human brain is wired to sense the pain or hurt of another. Due to the marvel of modern brain imaging, we now understood that empathy occurs naturally in the way the brain reacts while observing emotions in others. Similar areas of the brain become active when someone sees pain or suffering in another. These connections are actually observed in many different areas of the brain that involve emotions, thoughts, and sometimes movement. One way this occurs in the brain is through “mirror neurons.” When we see someone smile our face naturally smiles. We observe the working of mirror neurons in babies when they reflect back those toothless grins that melt our hearts.
For a trained mental health professional, compassion is a key building block of effective helping. Just as developing any skill requires practice, a helping professional learns how to foster this connection in a way that alleviates suffering. A recent study sought to understand how non-verbal compassion expressed in a clinical setting affects the autonomic nervous system of the clinician and the client. Even when the client was unaware of the clinician’s inner and non-verbal practice of compassion, scientific data (measured by heart and respiratory rate and variability) revealed significant changes in the autonomic nervous system as well as significant increases in peacefulness and relaxation for both the client and the counselor.
How does this empathic connection help create healing? Our desire is to listen, understand and be present through deep suffering, harsh emotions, and dark memories. We aim to be “shock-proof” and yet desire to understand the depth of what is shared. Because we are outside of the suffering, and trained to maintain a degree of objectivity, we are not lost in the depths of depression, despair, or turmoil presented. We are simply present. Thus the burden is shared and healing begins.
Of course, this healing experience of compassion is not limited to a therapeutic relationship. Anytime true compassion is expressed between humans, growth and connection increases. When working with families or couples in a therapeutic setting, our aim is to model and assist in helping to facilitate a similar connection between loved ones. Couples who master (or simply practice) compassion can communicate effectively, connect emotionally, and thrive relationally. Parents can transform their relationships with their children (young or grown) through the practice of loving compassion. Even though our brains may empathize naturally, when we become purposeful and practice these desired states of empathy and compassion, we enhance our lives and enrich our relationships.
* Kemper, K.J. and Shaltout, H.A. (2011). Non-verbal communication of compassion: measureing psychophysiologic effects. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6882/11/132
Clinical Director at Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute