Beauty is the Beast: When love, caring, and kindness are experienced as threatening
There is a new study out in the Journal Mindfulness entitled Mindfulness and Metta-based Trauma Therapy (MMTT): Initial Development and Proof-of-Concept of an Internet Resource. This pilot study tested the feasibility of an internet-based adjunctive intervention for addressing PTSD and related symptoms. Previous research has shown that a 12-week lovingkindness, or Metta, intervention was effective for reducing PTSD symptoms, with large effect sizes. This current study, in part, addressed whether similar effects could be found using an online intervention.
The MMTT intervention was comprised of several different tasks that participants could choose from including a thought-record-like journaling task, a mindfulness task in which participants indicated whether or not their mind had wandered every time a bell rang, a lovingkindness task, and psychoeducation. When the authors compared whether participants with different levels of PTSD symptoms differentially preferred each task, only one between-group effect emerged: people with higher levels of PTSD symptoms rated the lovingkindness meditation less favorably than people with lower levels of PTSD symptoms.
Without extrapolating too much based on these correlational findings, it is worth considering whether some groups of people may be more likely than others to have a threat response to love, caring, or kindness. In addition to the MMTT study, other research has also shown a link between PTSD symptoms and a threat response to positive events such as getting thanked, or receiving a gift. A self-report scale called the Hedonic Deficit and Interference Scale has been developed to assess this tendency. An example item from this scale is [after experiencing a positive event] do you experience shame and humiliation?
When the learning history of survivors of interpersonal trauma is considered, it is understandable how a threat response to care would develop. In the case of survivors of childhood trauma perpetrated by caregivers, for example, the same person who provides care is also the source of threat. But what about other groups that may experience a threat response to care? Perhaps people who are highly self-critical may be more likely to attack themselves following what they perceive to be “undeserved” care? Indeed, research on fear of compassion has demonstrated that being afraid of compassion is linked to higher self-criticism. In addition, maybe people who tend toward emotional over control and perfectionism would also be more likely to experience care as aversive.
The question of which populations experience a threat response to warmth and care is a relatively new one with potentially important implications for therapy.