Healing Betrayal Trauma with Compassion

Last week, The Compassionate Mind Foundation listserv discussed the issue of working compassionately with a client experiencing feelings of betrayal, anger, and shame in her relationship with her parents. This client seemed to be experiencing a pattern typical of survivors of betrayal trauma in which, when she allowed herself to experience any anger toward her parents, the anger would always be followed by beliefs that she was betraying her parents with her anger, and then she would feel shame.

Dr. Russell Kolts chimed in with some clinical wisdom worth sharing about how he would bring compassion to this situation. Here is some of what he said:

There are a few points I could imagine myself weaving into the therapy when/if the time seemed right:

  • I'd want to help her explore how it makes sense that she might have these feelings, given her history.  This can help depathologize all of the different feelings... seeing them as "something I've learned to feel."


I would add that these are common, and possibly adaptive responses to betrayal trauma. Dr. Kolts continues:

  • This opens the way to having compassion for this version of her that isn't even allowed to feel angry without feeling bad about herself/that she's doing something wrong.  How hard it must be to be in this place!
  • Can the compassionate version of the self direct compassion and warmth to each of these threat-based versions of the self? ... Think of panicked passengers on a ship in a stormy sea.  The wise, compassionate captain doesn't condemn them, because she understands their terror.  Instead, she comforts them, and says "I'll take care of you", taking responsibility for steering the ship to safety. Let's consider them:
    • the girl who only wanted to be loved, but wasn't taken care of as she should have been?
    • the adult who gets angry because she wants to protect that girl?
    • the woman (anxious self) who calls the angry self a betrayer, who tries to protect the self by shutting the anger up?
    • the woman who, like the girl, feels unloveable and bad because she still isn't being taken care of/getting what she needs?

Can the compassionate self see that all of these make sense, and direct warmth toward all of them?

He then suggests some things he might say to a client in this situation:

"So there's a part of you that's learned that feeling anger means you're betraying your Mum. If we gave that part of you center stage, what would she have to say? "

"...are you choosing to feel angry, or does the anger just arise in you?"  "...are you choosing to feel like you're betraying them, or do those feelings just arise on their own?"

"Let's explore how you learned that to be angry with your caregivers is to betray them.  What experiences might have taught you that?"

"Given _what you learned while growing up, etc..., does it make sense that it would be hard to allow yourself to feel anger, and that feelings of betrayal would come up in you quickly after anger arises?"

He then gives an example of how he might use an exercise called "the compassionate self exercise" to work with this person who is struggling with anger:

"From the perspective of your wise, kind, confident, compassionate self, I want you to imagine that this version of you who is struggling with this is here in this chair.  Look at her.  Just like everyone else, all she wants in the world is to be happy and to not suffer.  But when she was young, she didn't get what she needed....  Sometimes ... she feels angry.  But part of what she learned growing up was that it wasn't okay for her to have these normal feelings.  See how hard it is for her, hating herself for having her own feelings.  From this wise, kind, confident place, what would you want her to understand?  How might we encourage her?  What might help her feel safe to experience her own emotions?"

One thing love about Dr. Kolt's response is that it is consistent with both Compassion-Focused Therapy and ACT. There is a growing relationship between the two approaches, and we can't wait to see where it goes.

You can check out Dr. Kolts' work here, or if you can make it to Portland this month, check out his workshops.

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