Compassion Informed Practice: The Antidote to Violence and Trauma
by Dr. Harry Stefanakis, Ph.D, RPsych.
Men’s violence against women is sustained within a culture that promotes separation based on gender, that objectifies women (e.g., through their bodies) and that accepts accounts of life which state men are entitled to control women (e.g., women have historically been property). Additionally, trauma can be considered a “disorder of recovery” because the context of recovery determines whether people get Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, how severe it becomes and the speed of recovery. Specifically, research shows that connections prevent and heal violence and trauma whereas separation and isolation makes it worse.
The antidote to separation, therefore, is connection. The pathway to connection is intelligent compassion. I use the term Intelligent Compassion to distinguish it from simplified views of compassion. Intelligent compassion involves connection and caring. It involves a desire to relieve suffering and promote life affirming change. Intelligent Compassion also involves skillfulness. By skillfulness I mean the capacity to do the right thing at the right time by being in the right state. In this way, it is differentiated from unidimensional understandings of compassion as simply a “soft” sympathetic emotion and from “tough love” ideas that are blunt instruments often used for control and masquerading as compassion.
For the purposes of this article I will make three empirically validated arguments for a compassion informed practice. I will focus on the treatment of offenders as this is the greater challenge in having interveners accept a compassion informed practice in the field of violence and abuse. *References have been removed due to space limitation but can be accessed by writing to the author.*
First, neurological research shows that compassion is a skill that improves with practice. Additionally, compassion tones down threat system and improves executive functioning which enhances perspective taking and promotes prosocial behavior. Building compassion also decreases the likelihood of aggressive responses because it is only when people dis-identify with others that aggression becomes a plausible response to dealing with human relationships. Consequently, compassion needs to be a target of clinical intervention for the treatment of offenders.
Second, compassion informed practice facilitates therapeutic engagement and reduces treatment attrition thereby improving program outcomes. Those who drop-out of treatment tend to be younger, single, unemployed and generally at a higher risk for re-offending. Basically, they are the most disconnected individuals. On the other hand, program completion and therapeutic alliance is associated with reduced recidivism. Research in interpersonal neurobiology makes it clear that the safer people feel the more open to change they become and that connection activates more advances in neural circuitry that supports pro-social behaviour. Improved facilitator skill in engaging offenders through a compassion informed practice reduces attrition and manages risk.
Third, intelligent compassion promotes responsibility and accountability. A fundamental quality of compassion involves the desire to end suffering. The only way to end violence and abuse is through accountability therefore a compassion informed practice compels us to hold offenders accountable for their actions. Furthermore, change happens when the therapeutic context is safe but not too safe. In other words, a compassion informed practice creates room for challenge within a safe environment. Additionally, clinical research shows that compassion experiences and training promote personal responsibility whereas shame and coercion activate the threat response system which shuts down learning and promotes a repetition of old patterns.
Finally, it is important to note that interveners need to practice what they teach. By practicing what they teach, not only do compassion informed practitioners model appropriate states and behaviours, they become more skilful and creative in their engagement and interventions. Authenticity, in the end, matters.
The Canadian Society of Clinical Hypnosis is proud to present a workshop with Dr. Harry Stefanakis, Ph.D., R. Psych. on April 29, 2017 in Vancouver. “The Connection Imperative: What Compassion and Hypnosis Teach Us about Treating Violence and Trauma explores the concept that the antidote to fragmentation is connection. In this workshop, you will learn how compassion and hypnosis activate this antidote and provide us with a foundation for intervening in violence and trauma.
Dr. Stefanakis is a clinical and consulting psychologist. He is on the board of the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization, past president of the Ending Relationship Abuse Society of BC, and has been on the board and faculty of the CSCH (BC) for 5 years. He has over 20 years of experience in facilitation of individual and social change, focusing on intelligent compassion processes, a concept which he has developed.
In addition to providing education and consultation for progressive private sector corporations, he has been a visiting expert for the United Nations Asia and Far East Institute, and a consultant for the B.C. government and the U.S. Navy. He has participated in the Be More Than A Bystander campaign, and has produced three audio CDs: “Guided Presence”, “Letting Go: Guided Exercises for Relaxation and Pain Relief”, and “Practices for Freedom”.
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