12 February 2019 – A Conversation on Compassion Focused Therapy

On 12 February 2019 Holistic Practices Beyond Borders and STARRTS were blessed to host Dr Paul Gilbert and Dr James Kirby in a conversation on Compassion Focused Therapy facilitated by Dr Lisa Williams.

Dr James Kirby is a Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer at University of Queensland. James holds a Visiting Fellowship at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University and is an Honorary Member of the Compassionate Mind Foundation UK. James is primarily focused in the family arena, “how we can utilise mindfulness and compassion to help create nurturing family environments.”[1]

Dr Paul Gilbert is a Professor at the University of Derby Founder of Compassion Focused Therapy, and the author of numerous books including: The Compassionate Mind 2013. And Living Like Crazy He was awarded an OBE, Order of the British Empire, by the Queen in 2011 in recognition of his contributions to mental-health. He has been a clinician for over 40 years and has over 300 publications. He also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Queensland.

“…Research was starting to show clearly that there are different types of positive emotion. One is linked to drive and excitement and another is connected to feelings of reassurance, security, safeness and calm peacefulness. I realised that, as therapists, we need to separate these two positive emotion systems very clearly in our minds because, although they’re intergrated, they also work in very different ways……”[2]

Dr Lisa A. Williams is a Senior Lecturer University of New South Wales. Lisa is a social psychologist whose research explores the dynamics between social interactions and emotional experience, with a focus on how positive emotional experience functions to enhance wellbeing at the personal, interpersonal, intergroup, and societal levels.

“Lisa Williams was the guiding force behind much of the work on pride… she continues to do some of the most ground-breaking work around on the social aspects of pride.”[3]  

The evening began with a heartfelt and interesting Acknowledgement of Country offered by Dominic WY Kanak Deputy Mayor of Waverley Council.

We next dived into a deep discussion facilitated by Dr Williams aimed at illuminating the works of Dr Paul Gilbert and Dr James Kirby. Briefly, their working definition of “compassion” was explained as “sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try and alleviate and/or prevent the suffering”. We learned that compassion can be understood as a motivation. We learned that Motivations are systems in the brain that follow a stimulus and response process. Understood in this way, compassion is not seen as an emotion but rather as a motivation consisting of:

  • The stimulus - being sensitive to suffering and distress in others so as to notice and be moved by the suffering; and

  • The response - working out how to respond and following through with appropriate action intended to alleviate the suffering.

We often want to understand compassion as a positive emotion, but compassion involves us in engaging with suffering and, as such, when we are exercising compassion it often means we are not exactly jumping for joy!

The good news is that all human beings possess this motivation and there are no limits to the motivation. As such, there is really no such thing as compassion fatigue.

Whilst we may not suffer from compassion fatigue, there are, however, blockers which can either prevent us from either noticing the suffering or from responding in an appropriate way to alleviate the suffering. This can be a particularly difficult problem and result in internal conflict if we see the suffering and are prevented in some way from acting to alleviate the suffering.

As a solicitor for some thirty-three years I was relieved to hear that we do not have to be able to give ourselves compassion before we can give compassion to others. I have always tried to act with compassion for my clients, but I can relate to the difficulties we all encounter when our culture puts a blocker to our deep motivation to act to alleviate suffering. It occurs to me that perhaps the biggest blocker to me being able to effectively act to alleviate the suffering of my clients during my career has often been the law itself!

I am not an anarchist and I do not have a hidden agenda for law reform when I make this bold comment. Nor do I see anything inherently wrong with the structure of western democratic states. It does, however, cause me to ponder the origins of our western democracies and the legal systems which have sprung therefrom.

The knowledge that human beings are, in fact, wired to alleviate suffering is in stark contrast to the knowledge our forefathers of the enlightenment project had regarding the nature of the human being. Thomas Hobbes, for example, in formulating his notions regarding the social contract, relied upon an understanding that, if human beings were to be left unregulated, then, in our natural state, there would be a war of ALL against ALL.

Of course, we would be foolish to proceed on the basis that the true nature of us is to always act compassionately. We learned this evening that four-year old’s will not share their resources to help others unless they have a sense that they have sufficient resources for themselves. It seems, as a prerequisite for the activation of the motive of compassion, we need to have a sense that our needs are met, that we have enough. It must be acknowledged that this prerequisite may be difficult to achieve in our world of advertising which is aimed at convincing us that we are not enough and certainly do not have enough.

So then, our unlimited motivation for compassion may be blocked to prevent us from giving compassion either to ourselves or to others by any one or a combination of numerous factors which might include the law or our culture or our morality or our notions of political correctness or simply by how we have personally developed as human beings. We may be blocked in either the receiving of the stimulus, ie actually seeing or noticing the suffering, or we may be blocked in our responses to the suffering.

In looking at what may be the blockers to this unlimited human motivation, it is important to contemplate that we now know that human beings are not the one-dimensional savage self-interested individuals Thomas Hobbes, for example, once assumed us to be. Our western democratic systems were designed upon these Hobbesian assumptions about our human nature. Our culture and our social systems of morality and our legal and economic systems have also been predicated upon these Hobbesian assumptions about human nature.

The Australian Aboriginals recently met and developed a statement entitled a statement from the heart in which they suggested to the Australian government that we need to develop formal processes for truth telling to properly integrate the history of our nation to enable us to move forward as a new nation transformed by addressing our past. Perhaps as part of that truth telling we also need to think anew about the processes we have in place which are based in what we have now learned is a false understanding of the true nature of human beings. We now know that human beings are actually multi-dimensional and, as well as being self-interested, we are also hard wired for compassion.

It seems to me that the understandings we learned this evening through the work of Drs Gilbert, James and Williams have far reaching and profound benefits for our species as we all come to terms with world globalisation and our current tendencies towards identity or collectivist politics.

Hopefully, these understandings about our motivation for compassion will assist us to put down our weapons including our weapon of rationality. Too often we use our rationality to either argue that our cause must win out over all other causes for our cause to continue to exist or to argue that someone must pay for the hurt that someone has suffered…a kind of restitution by revenge where there is forever present an interchange between the persecuted and the persecutor.

Perhaps if we could understand that we all have a deep motivation to alleviate the suffering of others, then, even though mistakes will be made, perhaps we could more easily find a connection to forgiveness and restoration. Perhaps this is really what the gender debate is all about. Perhaps it has nothing to do with genitals but rather is about a rebalancing of feminine and masculine energy where hard and fixed rational notions of rights and duties and obligations are seen as masculine energy and flexible living compassionate notions of personal responsibility, kindness and caring are seen as feminine energy. These feminine and masculine aspects exist within all of us irrespective of our gender. Understood  in this way, the gender debate may be viewed as the superficial surface argument of an underlying human desire to rebalance the way in which western democracies have skewed our systems to deal with a human nature which emphasises our self-interested aspects and has consequently relied upon our fear of each other to develop protective (ergo masculine) systems with regulations and rules aimed at protecting ourselves from these savage elements of our human nature.

What if we all no longer feared each other and began to relax and to rely on each other’s motivations for compassion?

Perhaps there is no need to change the frameworks our forefathers developed but rather to understand who we are so that the systems we continue to develop within those frameworks are designed to free us from the blockers to our motivation for compassion to enable us all to become the fully compassionate individuals we are all hard wired to be.

As we think about moving forward from here, let us not forget that we are all sensitive beings. Hard wired to be sensitive to the suffering of others and motivated to alleviate that suffering. In keeping these understandings at the forefront of our consciousness it is my sincere hope that we might be able to participate in some formal truth telling processes to integrate our past understandings of who we are with our current understandings of who we are so that we might remove the blockers we have developed, both within our culture and within us as individuals, to our natural motivation for compassion. It is my hope that such an approach will free our motivations for compassion for ourselves and each other and enable all of humanity to move forward in a changed way in harmony with each other and with our environment.


[1] Character Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner and Saint Lurking in All of Us by David De Steno and Piercarlo Valdersolo  2011)

[2] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cpsp.12149

[3] Character Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner and Saint lurking in all of us by David De Steno and Piercarlo Valdersolo  2011).

Dr Sonia Anderson. 

Sonia has been a hands-on, solutions-focused Professional with over 33 years of experience in dispute resolution within the Australian justice system.Among her qualifications are the following:

1984 – Bachelor of Arts with the degree of Bachelor of Laws - Macquarie University - B.A.L.L.B.

2002 – LEADR now Resolution Institute - Accredited Mediator

2018 - PHD - Doctor of Philosophy in Education - Newcastle University

Thesis Title: "The Interface between Moral and Legal Education; towards a new Paradigm of an Inclusive Understanding for Dispute Resolution."

2019 to date – Retired lawyer - Following on from her thesis in philosophy, Sonia is spending her time contemplating the complex problems and challenges currently facing our world. She is interested in developing new ways for our Australian community to discuss and resolve action on contentious contemporary problems. Her published ideas are aimed at provoking thought and new ways of thinking. Sonia does not pretend to hold any answers to these complex problems and she no longer holds herself out to be an expert in the field of law or indeed in any other field or discipline of knowledge.  As such, she cannot guarantee the accuracy of any information conveyed by her thoughts and she recommends and encourages all her readers to perform their own research and make their own conclusions about any of the matters discussed by her. Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professorial Standards Legislation.

This site was designed with the
website builder. Create your website today.
Start Now