Compassion Strengths

Workshops, consultations, education and support for care givers.

Article 9

<< Back to articles list

Recreating Competence

"If a man is to use his capacities to the full and with the confidence that fits his powers, he has no alternative but to recognize theimportance and power of intuitive methods in all fields of inquiry- literature and mathematics, poetry and linguistics."

— J. Bruner and M. Clinchy, Toward a Disciplined Intuition in Mindfulness

On Being Competent

The Oxford American Dictionary defines competent as: "Having the ability or authority to do what is required." For many of us this definition falls woefully short of what we expect of ourselves. Often we fall short of our expectations because we unconsciously raise them to another level the moment we reach where the original mark was set. One of our favorite expressions as care providers is: "should-have."

My definition of competence is: "to be good enough." Not necessarily great or outstanding, standing above and separate from my peers, but just good enough. Mastery will build upon competence. But, until I first build the foundation of being good enough, entertaining the idea mastership is premature and is likely a compensation for not feeling good enough about myself.

The concept of "good-enoughness" is at the heart of a care provider's core competence: The ability to consciously join and effectively navigate the Energy in MOTION that is exchanged between client and care giver in the therapeutic relationship. The more I experience a sense of "enoughness" in my core sense of self, the more effective I will be in joining and navigating another person's emotions.

The following outline has been developed with the specific needs of care providers in mind. Like any change it is easier in the short term not to take action that eventually results in greater pain: It is the difference between temporary relief at the expense of permanent pain, or temporary pain with the promise of permanent relief.

The following outline is some specific suggestions using the techniques you learned in "Regaining Safety" and "Reconnecting the Body" to begin to consciously join and navigate your Energy in MOTION that will empower you to proactively create your day to day experience as a care provider.

"Until you first realize that you are in prison, no escape is possible."

- Gurdjieff

Begin Each Day Mindfully

Dr. Ellen Langer a Harvard Psychologist did some ground-breaking research on the nature of "mindlessness", particularly it's co-relation with the aging process. In her book "Mindfulness" she describes mindlessness as: Being trapped by categories, getting caught in automatic behavior and acting from a single perspective. She states the cost of mindless thinking includes: A narrow self-image, unintended cruelty, loss of control, learned helplessness and stunted potential.

Dr. Langer describes mindful thinking as: Creating new categories, welcoming new information, taking more than one point of view. The benefits of mindful thinking include: Welcoming the glitch, developing a second wind, innovation, maximizing the power of uncertainty and decreasing burnout by increasing personal control.

Each morning you have the opportunity to decrease your mindless thinking and increase your conscious, mindful awareness. In other words, each morning you have the opportunity to decrease your sense of burnout and increase your sense of vitality. It only takes a couple of minutes and you have already learned the basic technique.

Make the conscious intent to give yourself a few extra minutes each morning before going to work. When you wake up tomorrow, go immediately into a quiet place where you can sit down for a few minutes undisturbed. Follow the protocol described in "Gaining Safety" in the chapter "Re-gaining Safety and Control."

When you are fully relaxed and settled in your center, consciously bring your upcoming day to mind. Think about it from beginning to end. As you allow the images of how you expect your day to go, notice the sensations that are also going on inside your body. Notice which body sensations are attached or associated with what images that are going through your mind. Particularly notice when you may be holding or restricting your breath. This is your first indication that there may be some blocked energy.

It is often when your body tightens and numbs through restricted breathing that your mind has "stumbled" upon a thought, image or associated memory that threatens to trigger a (secondary) traumatic stress reaction. This is precisely the mind-body experience that is most vulnerable to being trapped by categories, getting caught in automatic behavior and acting from a single perspective.

When we feel our sense of self being threatened we often retreat instinctively to old mind-sets that may be self-limiting although we have a tough time seeing this. One of the best ways to get beyond self-limiting beliefs is to attach a different physical experience to the thought, image or memory that usually precipitates a self-limiting response.

As you focus in on your upcoming day, bring to mind a specific situation that has been a source of distraction, sensitivity, overload and/or misperception. Follow the instructions given in "Re-gaining Safety." When you are comfortable being a participant/observer with this situation replay it in your mind with mindfulness.

Make a conscious effort to create new categories, welcome new information and take more than one point of view when replaying this situation. Be creative and playful when re-constructing your memory of the past and expectations of the future for this experience. Dr. Langer states: "The child's serious re-creation can become the adult's playful recreation."

Develop solutions in your replaying of the experience that are "good enough." Try to not fall into the mindless habit of having to be RIGHT. The need-desire to be right is at the heart of mindlessness that will keep your creativity enslaved by being trapped by categories, getting caught in automatic behavior and acting from a single perspective that ultimately results in a narrow self-image, unintended cruelty, loss of control, learned helplessness and stunted potential.

When you have developed a good enough solution for this situation you expect to encounter in your work, rehearse the solution in you mind several times. Visualize and feel yourself responding emotionally and behaviorally in the ways that will accomplish your desired end result. There is really no mystery why most great athletes, scientists, artists and musicians utilize conscious visualization in pursuing excellence - it works.

Stop! Relax. Breathe. Regain safety and control.

The Nature of Conflict

"Conflict is natural; neither positive nor negative, it just is. Conflict is just an interference pattern of energies. Nature uses conflict as its primary motivator for change, creating beautiful beaches, canyon, mountains, and pearls. It's not whether you have conflict in your life. It's what you with that conflict that makes a difference. Conflict is not a Contest. Winning and losing are goals for games, not for conflicts. Learning, growing, and cooperating are goals for resolving conflicts. Conflict can be seen as a gift of energy, in which neither side loses and a new dance is created. Resolving conflict is rarely about who is right. It is about acknowledgment and appreciation of differences. Conflict begins within. As we unhitch the burden of belief systems and heighten our perceptions, we love more fully and freely."

— Thomas Crum, The Magic of Conflict

Sometimes and often in the beginning, despite our best intent and practicing visualization to find new solutions to old problems we still get caught in automatic behavior - especially if we are dealing with a personally threatening or intimidating situation. The force and immediateness of our emotions can override our conscious intent. As explained in Secondary Trauma and Emotional Hijacking in the chapter "The Personal Cost of Care," under certain circumstances we experience "emotional explosions" that can by-pass the neo-cortex or thinking brain causing us to experience momentary loss of control and to say or do things we later regret.

As you become practiced in your morning visualizations and are able to more quickly identify those bodily sensations that cue you to an impending emotional hijacking, the more successful you will become at halting the emotional hijacking and restructuring your physical, emotional, mental and behavioral responses. Each time you can identify what sets you off and are able to delay that response and replace it with self-soothing, you have succeeded in beginning to re-route the emotional and neural-chemical circuitry of your brain.

The most important and most difficult part of this process is to:


Why is it so difficult to stop when we get on the verge of an emotional hijacking? Often we can feel it coming on, we get tense in the neck and shoulders, we stop or restrict our breath, our hands go cold and we can begin to feel the rush of adrenalin as our face gets hot and flushed. But often, despite these physical cues we continue on in our conflict determined to get the last word, make ourselves right and/or somebody else wrong.

The ability to stop! is determined by our willingness to give in. This does not mean to give up as we so often mistaken. Giving in is relinquishing to the reality of the situation as it is at that time. Giving in is a willingness to change.

Be Willing to Change

"The most dependable quality in the universe is that of change. A willingness to change eliminates the word failure from our vocabulary. To change our perspective in a conflict is to move from a point of view to a viewing point. Embracing change is consciously choosing our future. Flexibility allows us to stretch rather than shrink in life."

— Thomas Crum, The Magic of Conflict

Relax and Breathe

The physical expression of the psychological state of giving in is to relax and breathe. Can you recall a situation that you were struggling with that appeared to have no solution? Can you remember the sense of relief and relaxation when you were able to finally just accept things as they were? "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

The single most valuable thing we can do for ourselves as we begin to become aware that we are on the verge of an emotional hijacking is to consciously relax and breathe. Bob Klein states: "Letting go is a basic, if not the basic principle of T'ai-chi-ch'uan. It is said that a student's progress is determined by how much he is willing to let go of - tension, emotional programming, fear, thinking, defensiveness, etc. The natural being is already powerful and wise. You must let go of your interference with the body's power and wisdom."

The very act of consciously letting go, relaxing and breathing is to begin to re-create your emotional circuitry. Whenever you can associate a different physical sensation with the mental and emotional cues that would ordinarily trigger an emotional hijacking or secondary traumatic response, you have begun to break the chain of associations that typically lead to an emotional meltdown.

Provide Safety to be Receptive

It took me a long time to personally learn that I cannot take ownership and therefore control of my thoughts, feelings and actions until I am first safe within myself.

No matter how you phrase it in your mind, you cannot "metabolize" thoughts, memories, images and perceptions that are heavy with the emotions of self-condemnation, self-blame and shame. Our body-mind reacts to this kind of Energy in MOTION as though it were rotten food. Rather than take it in and metabolize it into self-structure, we must throw it up and out, or project it, onto others.

In order to be receptive to new thoughts, feelings, images and perceptions, we must have a sense of basic internal safety. We must be forgiving of ourselves as human beings. We must also allow ourselves to be competent before we expect ourselves to have mastery. My mantra to help remind me of this is: "I am doing the best I know how to do given the person I am today and the situation I am dealing with. When I know a better way and can do it, I will."

The physical experience of safety is often the feeling of being held. This is why Psychoanalytic Objects Relations Theory refers to the therapeutic relationship as a holding environment. It is often useful to visualize an oasis at the center of your being (and body) that is always safe, comforting and soothing in which you are constantly held. From this place of safety and stability we will be more able to be honest with ourselves.

Look and Listen - Nurture Self-Honesty

The Power of Discovery


"Is a place that doesn't know, doesn't evaluate, and is willing to see what is; Sees beyond the fight to an open realm of possibilities; Enables us to let go of the filters of our past and the blinders of our expectations; Perceives no right or wrong, only inquiry and creativity; Turns frustration into fascination, work into play."

— Thomas Crum, The Magic of Conflict

By learning to stop, relax, breathe and regain safety, as a method to delay and soothe "emotional explosions," you are taking vital first steps to re-circuiting and re-training your emotional responses. It is also not necessary to wait for an emotional meltdown to utilize these techniques. You can utilize them anytime you begin to notice some of the indications of distraction such as problems with attention, loss of stimulus discrimination, internal noise and persistent intrusions.

Looking and listening are two of the greatest tools a Warrior has according to the Wu Ying Tao martial art philosophy. At the gate of Blindness the Warrior encounters the Dragon of Sleep or unawareness. To "defeat" this dragon, the Warrior must learn to look and listen.

The essence of looking and listening is self-honesty. Self-honesty is not to be confused with morality. Self-honesty has nothing to do with whether you are a "good" person or "bad" person, it is not a judgmental value. Self-honesty is self-transparency, the ability to peer deeply inside and see clearly what is there - not necessarily what I wish or fantasize or fear and despise - but what in truth, in solid substance is actually my intent and behavior.

To be honest with yourself is to be one with yourself. Self-honesty is both the goal and the method. Attaining self-honesty is much like attaining enlightenment, there are layers and layers of personal reality that are pulled back for the eye to see, and just as soon as you think you have arrived at the "truth" you find it is just another layer.

You cannot force self-honesty. In fact the more you push on the door the tighter it gets. Temper tantrums and threats are also ineffective. Self-honesty or transparency that allows you a clear look at your self requires safety, stability and quiet. The active part of self-honesty is looking and listening.

Looking and listening is the process of quieting our emotions and stilling that ever talkative internal voice. The main reason we rarely listen to ourselves is because we are always talking to ourselves. Looking and listening requires we take the attitude that we may actually have something of value to see and hear inside ourselves. It requires that we feel safe enough and trust ourselves enough to look past the artificial construction of our persona and listen deeply to the voice of our body-mind, our intuition.

Take Responsibility

Taking responsibility is taking ownership of your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Taking responsibility is not the same thing as taking the blame. When you stop blaming yourself for making mistakes you will be able to accept ownership. Taking responsibility is taking ownership not blame. Practice saying: “I am doing the best I know how to do, given the person I am today and the situation I am dealing with. When I know a better way and can do it, I will.”

The importance of taking ownership cannot be understated. The more judgmental and blaming I am, the more I am splitting myself and others into good and bad, right and wrong, me and not me. Because we cannot emotionally digest and metabolize bad emotional food, we automatically split off those thoughts, memories and perceptions that are "contaminated" by "bad" emotions and try to get rid of them by projecting them onto others. This presents us with a couple of difficulties.

The first is, the more I disown parts of myself, the less "me" there is to form a stable and cohesive sense of self. The act of projective-identification on an ongoing and intense basis in and of itself is self-weakening. To project unwanted and disowned parts of my perception, my thoughts, images and emotions onto others or situations external to myself requires a great deal of energy.

I must first gather enough energy to deny my experience by holding it at arms length while looking the other way and even more energy to cast and re-cast the Energy in MOTION onto the screen of another person or event. Each time I take energy away from my conscious use to consolidate by sense of self, the less I experience continuity in time and space by providing safety and transparency.

The second difficulty is, the more I disown and project the "bad" part of myself onto others, the larger and more out of control those disowned parts of myself become.

The process of splitting which is necessary in projective-identification puts your core sense of self out of balance. The more I devalue those parts of myself I want to get rid of, the more I must compensate with a better-than, more special and therefore entitled, persona. In other words I must increase my sense of self-importance to compensate for by growing sense of weakness and badness. However, this is a flawed strategy because my expectations of entitlement place me further out of alignment with reality and rather than strengthen my crumbling sense of self, it further weakens me.

As I continue to feel weakened, the more necessary it becomes to project a growing sense of fear, rage and helplessness onto others. More and more of my experience becomes unsafe and is judged bad and is disowned. At some point I may feel the hands of a stranger around my throat only to discover it is me.

It is only when we begin to practice self-honesty with compassion and self-forgiveness will we be able to nurture the internal conditions within ourselves that are necessary to take personal responsibility or ownership. With safety, compassion and forgiveness we can begin to gain entrance into parts of our personal experiences that were previously unavailable to our conscious awareness.

Let go of the Energy in MOTION

"Letting go is a basic, if not the basic principle of T'ai-chi-ch'uan. It is said that a student's progress is determined by how much he is willing to let go of - tension, emotional programming, fear, thinking, defensiveness, etc. The natural being is already powerful and wise. You must let go of your interference with the body's power and wisdom."

— Bob Klein, Movements of Magic

Let go of the need to be right. Being free is feels better than being right. It boils down to our need to be right that enslaves our energy and keeps us stuck in our point of view. The need to be right is is active to the extent we feel wrong - it is a reaction built on fear. As with anytime we hold onto fear, we are also physically tense and/or numbed. Often we must take a physical action to help let go of the emotion.

Whenever possible, one of the best possible things we can do for ourselves, either in the midst of an emotional meltdown or as a precautionary measure is to move our bodies. This can be an extremely effective tool to divert and re-circuit the Energy in MOTION.

If you are in a position where you can get alone and do "The Cleansing Breath" qigong exercise described in the last chapter, this can be an extremely effective and immediate method to drain off the energy through breath and motion. The ability to consciously divert yourself from an emotional explosion - whether it is out at others, or directed inwardly at yourself, and re-route that Energy in MOTION to a physical outlet that connects your mind and body rather than separate it, is one of the most empowering activities you can perform.

Because we are often not in a place where we can slip out and do the qigong exercise described in the last chapter, here is a more abbreviated and less obvious exercise you can do anywhere.

  1. While seated at your desk place your hands on your stomach where your diaphragm is located and allow yourself to breathe fully from your diaphragm so that your hands will rise and fall with each breath.
  2. In a coordinated motion, tighten and rotate the muscles that connect your shoulders and neck by lifting your shoulders in a shrugging motion very slowly in coordination with your in-breath.
  3. As you breathe, breathe in fully allowing your stomach to expand from the diaphragm imagining your breath is energizing and invigorating every cell in your body.
  4. As you relax your shoulders and neck, breathe out with a sigh of relief visualizing all of your stress flowing out with your breath leaving you relaxed and focused.
  5. Repeat the exercise with continual fluid motion until your stress is replaced with vital energy.

When your breathing begins to slow down and your mind eases back into a more relaxed state, imagine the emotional hijacking energy rolling off you like water. Give in (rather than give up) to the reality of your current situation. Accept that you can and will survive this day as well! 

<< Back to articles list

Web Hosting Companies