Mobilising Compassion – A journey of three roads meeting to make a therapy for those at the edge of therapeutic opportunity

Dr Kate Lucre

Psychotherapist

Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain,but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it (Andy Rooney)

Climbing I believe is a lot like psychotherapy. It is during the journey towards discovery, change and growth when we learn the most about ourselves and not the summit, often there is no summit. 

The journey is lifelong, change/compassion is not something we ‘nail’ tick off or summit. 

It is a commitment we make to journey towards for the rest of our lives. 

So I will take you on a journey which is inextricably linked with the science and practice of compassion.

Mobilising Compassion

Bracknell, drama and being a lamb chop

My story begins at the age of seven, with the idea that every ‘show off’ needs a stage. This of course could not have been truer but for such different reasons. The stage offered an opportunity for self-expression, a place to play and over time a place for self-discovery.

When I think back over my lifelong love of theatre and all things dramatic, I am minded of the exercise whereby the class were instructed to imagine themselves as a lamb chop in a freezer bag, having the air sucked out and then frozen. My body remembers the intense concentration, sucking in my body, then slowly rendering myself immovable, rigid and indeed frozen. The joy, this made perfect sense to me, then in this imagining, I felt completely released. So, in taking on the role of a lamb chop, I could let go of the other roles which maybe held me back.

This passion took me to Shakespeare, another lifelong love affair. Cordelia in King Lear, Lady Macbeth, more opportunities to take on a role that had life in it… even in death. So I learned about our multi selves from the inside out. I could take on a role, develop it, play with it and in doing so let other overdeveloped roles go. Rebellion became an admirable attribute, to be used to bring fire to a role and not something to be ironed out.

Rock Climbing, Boozing and Berkov

Compassion Focused Therapy

Discovering rock climbing, excessive drinking and ‘Berkovian’ style theatre coincided with leaving home and trying on this truly new role. No-one explicit to rebel against presented a problem which sweary, violent, shockingly dark theatre provided a solution to. There were indeed dark times, the first and only truly broken heart, coupled with the thrill of seeing the horror on the faces of an audience.

In the midst of the drama came an introduction to the mountains, that are truly most effectively climbed in your mind. The discovery of another source of peace that to be in slow purposeful mindful motion could bring quiet to the chaos. Nothing to think of but the next place to put your hands and feet. A performance where no-one is watching. 

100 metres from the ground, there is no-one to call on but yourself. In those moments, every role you have taken on or had thrust upon you becomes deeply relevant. There is an authentic and true discovery of the self, with all your vulnerabilities and strengths, in a way like when you are directing or performing on the stage. You may have auxiliaries, someone holding rope, but you have to summon something from within you in that moment and take the risk.  Your co-therapist like your climbing partner can offer support and encouragement through minute and imperceptible gestures, but you have to make a decision about the next step.

I was going to be an actress who did rock climbing, right up to the point that I understood that I would require an auxiliary profession to subsidise the gaps in the ‘proper job’. Dear friends and fellow accomplices entered the world of drama ahead of me and were unceremoniously spat out again. I knew that I did not have a role even under construction to buffer me against the rejection and cruelty that sat alongside this profession. So I went travelling, met my co-traveller, gave up acting and set about getting a proper career.

Compassion Focused Therapy and learning how to mobilise Compassion

Drama went dormant for a while, replaced perhaps with climbing, another kind of peaceful enactment. I travelled, climbed, worked. I couldn’t be an actress who climbed but then equally I couldn’t be a climber who acted, so looking back, I needed something that connected both.

Discovering compassion focused therapy arrived at just the right moment, a model of therapy which had some substance, rooted in neuroscientific practice, attachment and evolutionary psychology research, with a personal practice component which felt like a good fit. 

Adapting this model for people with complex relational trauma required increasing creativity, some folk couldn’t even sit in a circle, let alone breathe together, so we had to evolve. It was at this point that I was reminded of the theatre, the games, ice breakers, props and offering another focus … compassion focused Pictionary

Finding a therapist who was prepared to play alongside me, took some years.  In the meantime I struggled on my own, trying to coax people out of their heads, patients and staff, but without a real frame or understanding of what I doing.

compassion focused therapy

So from these humble beginnings Compassion Focused Group Psychotherapy was born, perhaps like trying to find a new line to climb. You know the vague direction, but there are many obstacles, not least the exhaustion of always being on the move and working out as you go along. This time gave a whole new meaning to ‘flying by the seat of your pants’, I wore through many pairs of trousers! There were many times when I felt out there on the stage, no script, no rehearsals, with everyone watching perhaps waiting to see if I was going to screw this up.

This reverberated with old stories reminded me of what drama had released me from in the first place. Drama and acting had always given me a sense of being part of something, a tribe, belonging, but here I was on my own performing. Slowly over time a small tribe formed but I had no elders, everyone looked to me to tell them what to do and most of the time I had no idea. Maybe back then it would have helped me to acknowledge my struggles, but I have never been very good at that. So, I kept smiling cracking jokes and kept making slow at times quite lonely progress up the mountain.

The model which emerged had some rudimentary elements of something like action methods, with a fair smattering of play therapy. The therapy would often resemble a preschool classroom by the end of a session, with art materials, cloth and chairs scattered around the room. But the good news was that they stayed, shared and began to take small forays into the idea and practice of compassion for themselves and for the others in the group.

This work took me towards a gradual transition from being an individual to a group therapist. Another uneasy transition which I never imagined I would have made. Almost like moving from climbing with fixed protection, bolts in the rock, to traditional climbing. Accepting the terrifying reality that the only thing holding you 100 metres above the ground is a bit of metal you shoved in a crack in the rock. But once this terror subsides, it can become difficult to go back to the safer way.

I wonder if my transition to groups has been similar. Within individual therapy there are only two minds to consider, but within a group setting the number of minds that you are required to mentalise with, make sense of and explore with compassion, grows exponentially. There have been times particularly in the early days when the terror of the group mind and its vagaries felt too much. When anxious I tend to speed up, there were some groups in that time when I may have been actually breathing through my ears as I attempted to keep the group moving, almost jollying them along at times with relentless activity.

compassion chair

My intuitive and attuned group very quickly picked up on this and with trepidation I stopped focusing on the content and shifted my attention to pacing and tone. This has become over time the bedrock of all my teaching trying to demonstrate how slowing the pace can create space for our patients to begin to connect with these feelings.

The same process of course occurs in us, so I was often confronted with my own feelings, these still regularly take me by surprise and I am often moved to tears. The difference is that now I let them be, (well that is a work in progress). Although these feelings in the early days were terrifying and the image of myself sobbing uncontrollably could pop into my mind at any given moment, plunging my nervous system in a downward spiral of threat, fear and panic.

My own slowly developing practice in self-compassion, incredible supervision and painful personal therapy were part of the solution. Aided in immeasurable ways by climbing on a weekly basis. Climbing again like therapy require a steady hand. I learn this lesson very regularly as I rush into my climbing practice full of the day’s preoccupations. Quite simply I fell off very quickly and unceremoniously and then I remember that my body cannot do both, rumination and climbing are not possible for me. So, as I pick myself up off the mat or steady myself on the rope, I wake up and shift my focus back just to the task in hand, slowing my breathing and my pace.

So, in therapy, the personal practice breathe before the group starts became a non-negotiable aspect of the developing model. I attempt to also stretch out my body and also my mind. I know this now to be a specific version of the warm up. I skip it at my peril. Lurching into the group space, weighed down with the other ‘stuff’ set a tone for the group which I could feel and I believe without doubt the group can feel too.

Mobilising Compassion, where three roads meet

It is not enough to be compassionate … we must act    Jack Kornfield

I have been fortunate to have met many co-travellers on this journey towards self-compassion as a model of therapy and perhaps most importantly as a way of being. But there are two whose presence has led me to this point, reflecting on the journey so far. Together we have mobilised compassion, moved the therapy from a vague manual into a living and breathing process driven intervention which my edge of therapeutic opportunity folk tell me really does work. This is of course a huge relief given how much is riding on this!

I have always had quite a belligerent part of me that is ignited if someone tells me that they can’t be helped. This has motivated me to work at the edge of therapeutic opportunity for my whole career from, from teaching autistic adults to jet ski, taking children from secure care homes rock climbing and then driving around Leicester chasing after my itinerant young forensic patients who everyone said should stay in hospital. It hasn’t always ended well and my belligerence which has bordered on showing off at times has got me into considerable trouble.

Slowing down and learning to use my wise mind remains a work in progress. Yalom’s words about self-disclosure have helped me in many aspects of my work and home life… who is this in the service of, you or your patient? But in the midst of it all of this I do want to work with those that everyone else has written off. At times my passion turns to arrogance and blinds me to the reality of a situation and at other times it helps me to take a risk, I am still working on distinguishing between the two.

Therefore, I stand by my choice, those who no-one else wants, those who have either had everything and it didn’t work or had nothing.  I have no doubt that in the midst of this I have also been bringing attention and care to the girl who felt that no-one really wanted her and care was conditional. I am no paragon of virtue, I wonder if another part of what draws me to this group is an affinity with the difficult, prickly nature coupled with deep yearning for that which is so difficult to take, emotional connection. I have often wondered, in group, about the version of me for whom things turned out differently. I could easily have sitting in the patient and not therapist chair. 

So to offering a rolling Compassion Focused Group psychotherapy, combining principles and practice from group analysis within a compassion focused framework and structure, animated by action, movement and most importantly play. The play bit has been most straightforward, my accomplices have brought play in buckets and as Piaget said play is the answer to how anything new comes about. I like this idea as I love to play, I cannot imagine life without it. I return again to acting and climbing, both I think attract playing and playfulness, I laugh louder and longer with climbing buddies, as I did with my acting buddies than in any other place. If you fail on a climb you are likely to be greeted with derision and a suggestion that if you weren’t so weak you might be able to make the move, but given from a place of deep compassion, care and belief in you.

With some ideas about a therapeutic journey we developed the compassionate kitbag, everything you might need to nourish you on the journey. This more practical concept has been deepened and developed by the reframing through action. Show and tell sessions inviting patients to bring the kitbag stuff to group, share it and then take the role of this. These are without doubt the most moving, humorous and cathartic sessions in all our therapy programmes. The same can be said when I demonstrate this in my teaching, there are always tears and discoveries. To animate that which is held dear and bring it to life in the room offers a direct access to the experience of compassion. These objects and animals are truly aware of and sensitive to the person’s suffering coupled with a deep commitment to alleviate their suffering, just by being there.

Bruce, the name of one patient’s elephant, gifted to her by a teacher at school, told her that he could see her strength and courage and as he had a very good memory he would always remember. If she took him out of the draw and put him on the table he could remind her whenever she needed him to. The simplicity of this technique and the power and layers of meaning that can often be made, humbles me and makes me proud all at the same time. I have taken the role of my pounamu, the jade necklace I wear, I was overwhelmed by the flood of warmth, care and affection which accompanied speaking from this place. Through the medium of playing, I have been able to touch on, hold and let go of so much pain that I have carried with me and played out. This deepens my connection with the therapeutic work and I can step up to direct, with a confidence that comes from personal knowledge, I know this works.

We share the metaphors of climbing with the group, we are journeying and we need sustenance on the way. We need climbing buddies, to enable us to do this joyful and terrifying activity with safeness, there will be times when you don’t feel like leading, but the wisdom comes from knowing whether it is avoidance or a much needed rest. The group can help with the wisdom, hold you to it when needed and let you sit back on the off day.  

Writing this piece has afforded me the opportunity to ‘bivvy’ on my journey, slow down, take a breath, enjoy the view and reflect on my journey so far. I can be a climbing psychotherapeutic actress or an acting climbing therapist or even psychotherapeutically acting climber and add any new roles which I find on my journey.

Dr Kate Lucre 

Balanced Minds, Compassion Focused Therapy & Self-Compassion

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