What is compassion focused therapy?

Compassion focused therapy (CFT) integrates techniques and strategies form cognitive behavioural therapy and a wide range of disciplines including evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, models of emotion regulation, developmental and Buddhist psychology. It was originally developed by Professor Paul Gilbert, a British psychologist, to help people with complex mental health difficulties who suffered from high levels of shame and self-criticism and low self-worth. 

CFT recognises that in addition to helping people understand and manage negative thoughts and behaviours, as in traditional forms of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, people also need tools to manage their emotions and soothe themselves in time of distress.

Therefore, the key therapeutic strategy in CFT is the use of compassionate mind training to help people to nurture compassion and self-compassion in order to create inner feelings of warmth, safeness and self-soothing.  This can be difficult for some people, so knowing a little bit about how evolution has shaped our emotions and styles of relating to others can be helpful starting point.

Emotion regulation systemsNeuroscience research suggests that we have evolved three systems that help us regulate our emotions:

  1. Threat and protection: This system helps us to be alert to threats and to act quickly to protect ourselves from actual (or perceived) danger
  2. Doing and achieving: This system provides the drive and excitement required to motivate us to seek out resources (food, sex, relationships, status, materialistic possessions) and pursue important life goals
  3. Contentment and feeling safe: This system generates positive emotions and is associated with feelings of peacefulness, wellbeing and contentment, and not just about the absence of threat or low levels of activity associated with the doing and achieving system

What happens in CFT

When our three emotion systems get out of balance we are likely to struggle to feel safe and content. Early life experiences of abuse, neglect, lack of affection, bullying, criticism, and exposure to emotionally unstable environments can sensitise us to viewing others and the world as hostile and make it difficult to being kind and compassionate to ourselves because we are so alert to threat. Consequently, our self-protection system becomes overactive and our contentment system shrinks or is inaccessible to us as a result. This is not an uncommon experience for people with anxiety and depression and for those who have experienced trauma.

That is why CFT aims to help people to ‘rebalance’ their emotion systems. This is achieved by helping people develop skills to relate differently to negative emotional states, enhance their capacity to create positive emotional states by create feelings of kindness and compassion towards others, themselves and also to be able to receive those things from other people.

Is CFT right for me?

CFT can be particularly helpful for people who struggle with:

  • Feelings of shame and guilt
  • Unrelenting self-critical thoughts
  • Difficulty being compassionate and kind towards themselves and others or
  • Feeling vulnerable, safe and trusting others

If you want to learn how to address any of these kinds of issues then Compassion Focused Therapy may be the treatment that works best for you.

Recommended reading

Gilbert, P. (2010) The compassionate mind. London: Constable & Robinson.

Ions, C., Beaumont, E. (2016) The compassionate mind workbook: A step-by-step guide to developing your compassionate self. London: Robinson.

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