Having given two presentations at the conference on Wednesday, I had the absolute honour of sitting on a women’s panel as we collectively brought our heart energy into the room and shared some deep connection time. One of the questions the audience asked the panel was about how we hold on to hope when we’ve been working for decades in the field. I asked everyone who felt that they had recovered from childhood trauma and/or adversity to stand up. Most of the 2,000 strong audience stood up and we shared a beautiful moment about hope, recovery and a deep acknowledgment that there is no them and us and that we are very often drawn into this work via our own healing journeys. There is hope right there! I raise this moment because I tire of the tendency to deterministic ways of thinking about those who have experienced trauma, a feeling which was reignited while listening to the important work of Paul Gilbert presented on Thursday.

Paul’s work is about compassion and its’ evolutionary origins and I would argue, VITAL in the story of prevention. The major challenges that we have, are of course, to understand suffering; the causes, the prevention and the alleviation of suffering.

He argues that there are psychosocial causes to humans causing suffering.

  1. Ignorance
  2. Callousness
  3. Cruelty

We have to understand how we got to be the way we are. We find ourselves in these bodies and we have to try and figure out how it all works. We have species-specific strategies; survival and reproduction, but evolution can make some terrible mistakes. Some adaptations make things worse but they can stimulate new adaptations.
He argues:

We are born without our permission.
We are socially shaped.
We are gene built.

Reflecting on his work in prisons, he says that processing harm done to others cannot take place until harm that has been done to self has been processed. Guilt has to be encouraged to move away from shame. I feel that this is a very important distinction and that the idea of processing one’s own trauma before being able to develop empathy and compassion towards others, is not centralised in most aspects of, for example, criminal justice.

Neoliberalism, which overstimulates competitive behaviour, disrupts empathy he argues and this statement generated some appreciative clapping from the audience. It can be very dangerous if unregulated which means that we have to be honest about the dark side such as human capacity for:
We need to be courageous about the dark side and stand up against the dark side.
Traumatised people seek power. The leaders who have caused the most suffering experienced childhood trauma which is why we MUST work on the prevention of trauma.

It was at this point that my sensitivity to the deterministic tendencies of psychology raised its presence because herein lies the danger of sharing a single story. Firstly, when I asked those who had recovered from trauma to stand up, I did so because our capacity to recover and then to go on and work in deeply compassionate settings is profound. This was demonstrated in how many of the audience stood up. It is also my experience that some of the most compassionate people I’ve met carry traumas that may well be incredibly difficult to ever resolve and heal from at all! I’m certain Paul knows this, but if we’re going to tell the story of psychopathic leaders childhoods as playing a part in their destruction of humanity (a view that I am very aligned with) then we must also tell the story of those with similar childhoods and their capacity for deep compassion of others. It’s the causation/correlation conversation but it is important as in my experience, people can have a tendency to hear a deterministic message about others while also feeling that they too will never recover and are somehow deeply flawed humans

Compassion requires courage and wisdom and a sensitivity to the awareness of suffering while also having the motivation to do something about it. I would also add that having compassion towards ourselves is an important part of this muscle which needs exercising.

I would highly encourage anyone to develop their thinking about compassion and to read more of Paul’s work in this area because what the world needs right now, is much much more of it!

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