Fears and Blocks to Receiving Compassion from Self and Others

snowy river

Session Details - March 27th. Exploring why it is so common to have blocks and/or fears regarding self-compassion and how these may be linked to harsh inner criticism and to trouble receiving from others. We then focused on the tools from MSC Paul Gilbert's Compassion Focused Therapy to slowly begin to melt the barriers and let compassion flow.

Our practice:

We started with a mindfulness practice, with the understanding that taking time on a regular basis to practice mindfulness and concentration allows us to get more familiar, therefore more friendly with our inner world. We then moved into the heart practices of firstly recalling a memory of a time someone showed us compassion, how they did it, what we felt like to receive it and what we felt in that moment of recalling it. We explored playing with the idea of giving compassion a colour. Lastly we recalled someone we are grateful to, someone who has helped us along the way - not necessarily with a struggle. We noticed how their help has affected us, and then how we felt recalling it.   

Our discussion:

Compassion can be defined as sensitivity to the suffering of self and others with a deep commitment to relieve and prevent it. Mindfulness can assist with the sensitivity part of this but a significant amount of people experience some form of block and/or fear to opening to the full flow of compassion. By the full flow I refer to the three ways the energy of this second component of compassion beckons to flow:
1. From others
2. To others
3. From self to self (self-compassion) 

 The following is from Paul Gilbert's article, An Introduction to Compassion Focused Therapy:

Shame and self-criticism are transdiagnostic problems. People who experience them may struggle to feel relieved, reassured or safe. Research suggests that a specialised affect regulation system (or systems) underpins feelings of reassurance, safeness and well-being. It is believed to have evolved with attachment systems and, in particular, the ability to register and respond with calming and a sense of well-being to being cared for. In compassion focused therapy it is hypothesised that this affect regulation system is poorly accessible in people with high shame and self-criticism, in whom the ‘threat’ affect regulation system dominates orientation to their inner and outer worlds. Compassion-focused therapy is an integrated and multimodal approach that draws from evolutionary, social, developmental and Buddhist psychology, and neuroscience.

Gilbert’s research has shown that fear of compassion for self was linked to fear of compassion from others, and both were associated with self-criticism, insecure attachment, and the tendency towards depression, anxiety, and stress. This has important implications for participating in practicing MSC because emotions related to our sense of connection are major regulators of threat-based emotions. (Paul Gilbert et al, Fears of Compassion, 2010, The British Psychological Society)

Causes of suffering:

Humans are one of the biggest sources of suffering to other living things including of course other humans. In addition, the way we think about and treat ourselves is a major cause of suffering to ourselves - the West is riddled with people who feel inferior, inadequate, are self-critical or even self-hating. To address this, we need to recognise and understand the blocks and or fears to changing these habits of mind.

Compassion and cruelty:

To understand compassion requires us to understand how compassion gets turned on and off, people can literally disassociate from pain and suffering - this is no one’s fault but – it is linked to how the brain works in certain contexts – and it carries huge implications for how we build compassionate societies. It also helps us gain understanding in regards to any blocks and fears.


In species without the attachment system like turtles, only around 2% survive. From hatching out of the egg they have to go it alone so to speak. Therefore great sensitivity and emphasis is placed upon this early stage of our development as humans. Attachment equates to survival, as far as our developing nervous system is concern. How we attach can then impacts on how compassion is given and received.

Attachement in humans requires a care giver to provide such things as:

Protection: anticipating/preventing, defending/standing up for – advocating
Distress call responsive: listening out for, rescuing, coming to the aid of – responding to distress
Provision: physical care, hygiene, food
Affection: warmth positive affects that acts as key inputs for brain maturation
Education and Validation: teach/learn life skills in family context: understanding one’s own mind
Interaction: being present, stimulating and regulating various affect systems: curiosity, play, soothing – socialising agent – shaping phenotypes
(Paul Gilbert. Introduction to Compassion Focused Therapy, Advances in psychiatric treatment (2009), vol. 15, 199–208 doi: 10.1192/apt.bp.107.005264)

So what things block the flow of compassion?

As a group at the booster session we discussed examples of blocks such as:
• Kind of 'taboo’ on pleasure, feeling that something bad will happen.
• Fear that you should never be happy because it leaves you off your guard and bad things can then happen.
• A threatened or highly critical, competitive mind.
• Societal norms as a barrier.

So what’s the bottom line?

We are an emergent species in the ‘flow of life’ so our brains, with their motives, emotions and competencies are products of evolution, designed to function in certain ways. We are subject to various malfunctions and diseases – in a genetic lottery (as Gilbert puts it). Everything changes – the nature of impermanence. Our genes and the social circumstances of our lives, over which we have no control, have major implications for the kinds of minds we have, the kind of person we become, the values we endorse, and the lives we live.

So what do we do about it?

See clearly into the causes of suffering: Gain a deep and broad understanding of this being human. We all just find ourselves here with a brain, emotions and sense of (socially made) self we did not choose but have to figure out. Life involves dealing with tragedies (threats, losses, diseases, decay, death) and we all manage as best they can. Much of what goes on in our minds is not of ‘our design’ and not our fault, and regarding this we are all in the same boat.

The wisdom of no blame with the desire to take responsibility via gaining a deeper and broader understanding, curiosity is the key to this!! We have the knowledge now that the brain can change, and when we change our minds we can change our brains - experientially directed nueroplasiticity, quite an empowering prospect really. 

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is to be understood.” – Marie Curie

  • Normalise any block or resistance to receiving compassion from others or giving it to yourself.
  • Imagine the inner resistance – then offering phrases such as: “May that which resists compassion in me find peace” - non-resistance to resistance.
  • In our relationship to ourselves we can ‘re-parent’, provide the key elements that may have been missing in our early attachment years.
  • Compassionate Letter writing
  • Compassionate chair work
  • Gratitude and joyfulness focusing
  • Taking an interest in others and working for their benefit

Compassionate container to hold your MSC practice in:

  • Compassionate facial expression – smile - friendly
  • Compassionate voice – warm tone, encouraging, supportive with a steady pace
  • Compassionate posture - open chest, shoulders back and shoulder blades down
  • Physical anchor to self-compassion, placing a hand on the heart or wherever feels supportive
  • Mindfulness
  • Grounded, stability


Comments from participants

“I have found mindfulness a key to coping." 

“Learning to be still and kind to myself." 

“Tina, you create a safe, warm, kind and comfortable environment."

“I could not think of a better way to start my week." 

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