Is your emotional oxygen supply running low? Exploring the blocks to compassion

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

Do you feel pressured to stay ‘well put together’ but at the same time feel roiled up inside?

It seems there is an ever-increasing pressure and stress for ‘well-put-togetherness’, yet we are all looking for some experience of catharsis.

We are more compelled than ever to prove to ourselves that we’re desirable over and over again, but at the same time struggle immensely on the inside with poor self-image, low self-esteem, and a 'guilt-complex' that says "I should be more..." or "I'll never be enough..." "I can't be or do, until I have" etc

Self-compassion is an important and necessary predictor of our mental health, but as a society we seem to have forgotten how to BE with ourselves with compassion.

More and more we’re seeking external validation or ways of regulating our internal states by means of external behaviours or substances because we have lost the capacity to tolerate or be with what is going on inside of us.

A lot of our time and energy is habitually 'sucked up' by trying to take the edge of modern life with things that eventually leave us empty-handed.

Many of us are eager for a 'cure' yet lack the patience and compassion for our own suffering and are insensitive to being with the causes of suffering.

We’re behaving in this driven fashion to satisfy a craving short-term, but at a grave cost to our wellbeing and relationships. The seeking has become addictive.

How did we lose the capacity for self-compassion?

The rise in mental and physical illness directly correlates with our cultural and societal ‘norms’. This suggests we are part of a much larger whole. This is the interconnection between the individual, collective (family, social, cultural etc), and entire environment.

Any ‘pathology’ whether defined as ‘mental’ or ‘physical’ can be traced back to our early experiences in life, how we coped with those experiences, how our cultures or societies taught us to think about and respond to illness, what those experiences did to our physiology, to the functioning of our genes, and to the functioning of our emotional apparatus which influences us to behave in certain ways that either promote or protect us from illness.

The Impact of Trauma

Trauma is more widely experienced than what our medical definitions allow for, and one of the impacts of it is that when things happen in the present, our response reflects some past experience. In addition, if there was a pattern of inconsistent parental presence or emotional availability, or if there was volatility, harm or assault experienced in childhood ~ fear and/or shame becomes 'built' into the nervous system, immune system and physiology. So, when something happens later on in life that has a fearful connotation, that old fear gets triggered.

“Trauma has become so commonplace, that most people don’t even recognize its presence”

~ Peter Levine

The other aspect of trauma is that we’re not as flexible in our responses. Our responses are more ‘programmed’ than chosen by us consciously. Fear is a normal response to threat, however, the adaptation response that was necessary to combat a threat as an infant or child (eg. assault, neglect, emotional deprivation etc) does not work so well in our adult lives because it does not allow the kind of flexibility or resilience needed to respond to events happening in the present or in the face of challenges.

It’s not the events in our current life that we react to, it’s our PERCEPTION of the event we are reacting to.

Fears, Blocks, or Resistances in receiving or giving compassion are an indication that a ‘threat’ orientation dominates an individual’s inner and outer world. This can play out in very complex ways.

People who lack Self-Compassion often experience intense shame and self-criticism. This triggers the threat system, which can result in self-attacking (eg. self-harm) or a complete collapsing around their difficulty (eg. depression).

Compassion is the willingness to understand the nature and causes of suffering while also being willing and courageous enough to come into contact with (vs. avoiding) that suffering, so that we can actually do something to eliminate or prevent further harm in the best ways that we can.

People with greater self-compassion are more resilient in the face of setbacks or failure, less likely to experience depression, less likely to negatively ruminate (ie. overthink) on social experiences, and more open to seeking help and mental health treatment.

If you find it hard receiving compassion from others, or you find it hard giving positive emotions or acting in caring ways towards yourself – you may benefit from working with a trained psychologist who can help you explore what’s blocking you, and cultivate a greater sense of self-compassion.

At D.I.V.E. Centre for Holistic Medicine, our psychologist, Arissa Brunelli, offers a wealth of experience and expertise in trauma-informed psychotherapy and somatic work to help clients move past the impact of their trauma(s) and gain a sense of liberation and functioning with ease in day-to-day life.

To book an appointment with Arissa, click the BOOK NOW button at the top of the page, or call (07) 5618 8882


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Office of the Surgeon General (US); Center for Mental Health Services (US); National Institute of Mental Health (US). Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2001 Aug.

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Mascaro, J. S., Florian, M. P., Ash, M. J., Palmer, P. K., Frazier, T., Condon, P., & Raison, C. (2020). Ways of Knowing Compassion: How Do We Come to Know, Understand, and Measure Compassion When We See It?. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 547241.

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