• Ryan Wilson

New Brain / Old Brain, Mindfulness, & Compassion (Part 2/3)

Welcome Back! Today we are going to talk about Compassion.

Last week, in New Brain / Old Brain, we


This loop activates Old Brain which directs emotions, and makes us feel threatened. Once we feel scared, our emotions direct our attention towards other threatening things, so the loop stays activated. This means New Brain is basically off-line, and our ability to problem solve (creativity, plan) and integrate are shut off.

We ended last week’s post with the comment that this loop can be interrupted with MINDFULNESS and SELF-COMPASSION. 

Mindfulness, allows us to SEE that we are being activated by the old brain and this allows us to CONSCIOUSLY CHOOSE to direct our energy towards SELF COMPASSIONwhich activates our Soothing System. Our Soothing System allows us to calm down enough to make the healthiest choice for us in that particular situation.

A quick search on Google sends us to Wikipedia (of course) and we find that there are a number of ways to interpret the word Compassion. However, for the purpose of our disucssion today, the first interpretation is the one we’re most interested in:


Compassion is the feeling of empathy for others. It is the emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.[link]

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Now consider, how often do we turn that compassionate eye toward ourselves? Are we sensitive to our own suffereing? The short answer is that we all CAN be compassionate towards ourselves… but many, many, many of us are not!

The definition of compassion that captures this best is that Compassion is being open to the suffering of others or ourselves AND the desire to relive it.

We talked about how Compassion is helpful because when we are activated, it allows us to interrupt that threat appraisal loop by calming us down- and none of us like feeling scared, so how do we show ourselves Self-Compassion?

Ideally, we were fortunate to have learned how to show ourselves compassion through modelling by the people who took care of us the most (our primary care givers). This would have happened when THEY showed US compassion and tried to relieve our suffering. This usually includes:

  1. Skin-skin contact (parent’s often rub our backs, hug us etc)

  2. Warm tone of voice (they would be reassuring, calm, kind)

  3. Calm, safe environment (they often brought us to a calm, or less chaotic place)

… but what if this ddin’t happen. We often have a learned history that we DID NOT CHOOSE, that predisposed us to certain vulnerabilities,  and we often forget that we DO HAVE A CHOICE NOW. For those of us who did not consistently have this, our Soothing System is small and relatively unused, imagine it being the size of a pea, and our threat system is BIG, and over-active, (because at one point it had to be), like a grapefruit.

So what can we do about this? As adults, it often takes a COMMITMENT to CONSCIOUS, directed efforts to learn and use these strategies for ourselves. 

This is what it looks like:

  1. Skin-skin contact (WE can gently place our hand on our own chest or neck, hold our own hand, especially the palm)

  2. Warm tone of voice (WE can do this through kind, understanding  self-talk)

  3. Calm, safe environment (WE can choose to go somewhere where we feel safe (this could be a room, a spot in the woods, etc). For those of us who are easily activated may benefit from creating a “Calm Corner”– a space that is designed by us, specifically with self-compassion and intention to help us calm down and feel safe- more on this below)

Practicing self-compassion for some of us is 

self care quote

So, what do we need to make this happen?

1. We need a  WILLINGNESS to be open to it and to engage it

  1. that means we DO NOT AVOID our own suffering, by distracting ourselves from it (critisizing ourselves, eating, drinking, getting overly involved in other people’s problems, worrying about things we can’t control focusing on the past or future etc), talking ourselves out of it or rationalizing why we shouldn’t feel the way we do. It also does not mean indulging in feeling hopeless or feeling like victim. It IS allowing ourself to be AWARE OF IT AND SIT WITH IT, allowing it to be there and allowing that awareness to foster our desire to help ourselves.

  2. It takes courage to do this, it is not easy to allow painful, sad, shameful or guilty feelings to come up AND not try to push them away.

2. We must be NON-JUDGMENTAL

  1. It is the willingness to notice painful thoughts, or feelings without critisizing or evaluating them as good or bad (even when they feel unpleasant), and with compassionate understanding . We can tell ourselves that it makes sense that those thoughts or feelings would pop up given our own or the other person’s learned experiences.

3. We must be COMMITTED to directing ourselves or others to engaging in actions that activate the Soothing System (See above). How committed are you? Be honest with yourself, there is no right or wrong answer, just what is and where we are right now.



There are many ways we can show ourselves compassion, but perhaps the 2 key ingredients are time and space.

Time is found through committed action. When you make the choice to give yourself time to be self-reflective, and explicitly turn that compassionate stance towards yourself.

“But I’m too busy…” we say, “the kids won’t give me a chance to breathe” we shout out! All valid… as excuses. We have all fallen into those same traps… many, many times, so there’s no judgement.

Recently, the one thing that has helped me the most, is the message on the poster below, that i’ve seen in a few places recently, and it can be applied to every form of self-care.


Space is the other key element. We all need our own Sanctum Sanctorum


For some, this can be a whole room for ourselves. Ideally, we would want a place where we can close the door and leave the rest of the world behind. Not everyone has a room to spare though, and the other way to go is to create a calm corner. If the term sounds familiar, in a pre-school / education centre kind of way… you’re right. Some schools use a calm corner for children who are acting out, it is a place they can go to help them calm down.

The thing is… this is a great idea, and not just for kids!!! Having a space where we can feel safe and where others are not allowed to come and go at will, it is only OUR space, can help us calm down quickly. In fact, when working with couples who are fighting a lot, we often ask them to create THEIR OWN SPACE in the house where no one else is allowed to go in or out without their permission. Whether it is a room, or a corner. This improves their outcomes dramatically, because when we are calm, New Brain can come back online and because we can PLAN, BE CREATIVE TO PROBLEM SOLVE and INTEGRATE, we are able to make healthier choices. Being calm allows us to make choices that are based on our values and our long term plans, not just surviving, like when we feel threatened.

To maximize the effectiveness of a calm corner, fill it with things that make it feel like it’s ours. If we’re a musician, maybe its our guitar, if we like to mediate, maybe it’s an incense holder and a candle. Whatever we need to make it feel like our space. Some may even find a ritual of some sort helpful in transforming the space.

So, the question is, are YOU ready


Remember you can follow us on twitter @KRyanWilson, @DrAdrianaWilson, or send us an email! Have a great week!

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