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A Paradox: Is Our System for Responding to Threats Itself a Threat?

As I’ve been learning compassion focused therapy, I’ve been struck by the way our “threat system” can itself become a threat to our wellbeing when it comes to dominate our emotional life.  The question then becomes, how do we defend ourselves against the threats poised by the threat system, without further reinforcing that system itself, and so defeating our own efforts?

(The threat system shows itself in many forms, fight, flight, freeze, submit, the “critic” or critical voices, depressed mood, anxiety, etc.  All of these are responses to threat which themselves can become threatening to us.)

At a recent 3 day training in compassion focused therapy that I attended in Berkeley, there were some interesting discussions between some of us about whether parts of us like the critic could be helpful, or if they were really unhelpful and threatening and we would do better to replace them with more compassionate perspectives.

I don’t think there is a fixed answer to such questions.  One problem is that there can be great variation in how a person understands a critical voice – some people may find their morale completely eroded by such a voice, while another person (or even the same person at a different point in life) may find that the same sort of critical voice is helpful in accomplishing objectives, and that it is not taken so seriously as to undermine morale.  Same voice, different way of listening.

Another problem is that the voice itself may change its behavior while still being in some sense the “same” voice, and it may shift to being much more constructive and helpful in the things that it says.  A great example of the latter is the voice and voice hearer whose story Rufus May tells in a video I previously referenced, .  In this case, a very nasty voice that spent years telling the voice hearer that she was a whore and should kill herself, later became a helpful assistant in her recovery, and demonstrated compassion toward the voice hearer.

Some might say that the voice in the above example is “really” not the same as the original critical voice, or that it has been affected by “leakage” from the compassionate self, and in some sense that may be true, but from the viewpoint of the voice hearer, it is the same voice but with an evolving perspective.

It seems that what is really important is that the threat system, and critical voices, be themselves looked at from a perspective of compassion.  This means to me being open to seeing these systems as having positive intention, and even as being positively helpful in some situations, even as they go overboard in other situations.  Then, the question of whether we see the altered interactions that result as coming from a shift to compassionate thinking, or as coming from transformations in the behavior of the threat system and the critic, becomes itself more of a matter of how we define and talk about things than it is about the things themselves.

I think it is important that we find a way to compassionately see the threat system, and its sidekick “the critic” as allies in our lives, even as we guard against becoming too caught up in them.  This keeps us from getting caught up in loops or vicious circles where we see the activity of the threat system as itself a threat, and fight against it, while it fights back, in a disruptive and unnecessary “psychic civil war” to use Eleanor Longden’s term.

Another way of describing this might be to say that when we look compassionately at parts of ourselves, they can become transformed by the way we see them, and themselves become more compassionate.

Anyway, that’s the way I’ve been looking at it as a newcomer to this field of compassion focused therapy…….

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