In this episode, Sarah talks to Clinical Psychologist Dr Chris Irons about his work in developing Compassion-Focused Therapy. At around 5:51, Chris talks about how he came to work with Prof Paul Gilbert; he talks about the power of CFT at 19 minutes, mindfulness, and our tricky brains at 32:56.
Together, they explore the transformative power of Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) and delve into the concept of Compassionate Mind Training.
During their discussion, Dr. Irons shares his collaborative journey with Prof Paul Gilbert, highlighting its profound impact on his professional growth and the development of Compassion-Focused Therapy. He emphasises the effectiveness of CFT in promoting well-being and alleviating mental and physical health distress.
Furthermore, Dr. Irons introduces the concept of Compassionate Mind Training, an integral component of CFT. This training focuses on cultivating compassion for oneself and others, nurturing a compassionate mindset that can be applied in various aspects of life.
As the co-director of Balanced Minds, Dr Chris Irons brings his expertise to the forefront, providing comprehensive psychological assessment, therapy, and training courses. His therapeutic approach aims to create a safe and caring space where individuals can explore their distress and find relief. Dr Chirs Irons values diversity and appreciates the unique characteristics of each individual, including factors such as gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.
Recognized as one of the leading trainers and supervisors of CFT, Dr Chris Irons regularly shares his knowledge and insights through presentations and workshops in the UK and internationally. His research contributions and publications on Compassion-Focused Therapy have solidified his position as a prominent figure in the field.
In addition to his accomplishments, Dr Chris Irons has co-developed the world’s first compassion-focused app, designed to promote self-compassion. This innovative app offers practical tools and exercises for both iPhones and Android devices to cultivate self-compassion and foster personal growth.
Prepare to be inspired as you listen to this enlightening episode, where Dr Chris Chris Irons and Sarah discuss Compassion-Focused Therapy, Compassionate Mind Training, and the profound impact of self-compassion. Gain valuable insights that can empower you to embrace compassion and enhance your well-being.
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Difficult Emotions book – The Compassionate Mind Approach to Managing Difficult Emotions
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Dr Chris Irons, Sarah Rees
Sarah Rees 00:09
Welcome to Ask the Therapist, a monthly podcast for everyone who’s interested in how our minds work building resilience through journaling, and all things therapy. I’m your host, Sarah Rees, a mental health nurse and CBT therapist with over 20 years of experience in the field of mental health.
Sarah Rees 00:26
Hello, welcome to this episode of Ask the Therapist, it’s lovely to have you here, I’m so excited to be able to share this month’s conversation with you. Today, I’m interviewing Dr. Chris Irons, Dr. Chris Irons is a clinical psychologist and an eminent figure in the world of compassion-focused therapy, because of his research and helping developing the therapy and his continuing efforts in building a balanced mind of which he’s one of the directors. He’s written a number of fantastic books, two of which I’ve got here. And they are brilliant for therapists learning about compassion, focus therapy, or if you’re interested in developing a more compassionate mind. And using the knowledge and the research around compassion, focus therapy just to be the best version of you can be. So he’s written The Compassionate Mind Approach to Difficult Emotions, and The Compassionate Mind Workbook as well, which he’s written with Elaine Beaumont, both fantastic books, I use them both an awful lot or highly recommend them. Today, Chris is talking about his journey into compassion focused therapy, becoming a clinical psychologist. He’s discussing how he met Paul Gilbert and their initial work together and some of the research that he’s done over the many, many years, he’s been in the field, think over 20. And he’s now living in Portugal, still running his business. He does lots of training, and he does lots of food supervision. And he’s spending everything out to the corporate world as well, which is very exciting. I’m looking forward to knowing more about that. We talk a lot as well about compassionate mind training. So you’ve heard on this podcast, we talk about compassion, focus therapy, a number of times, and you can go back and listen to the amazing podcast I did with Professor Paul Gilbert, which was just learned so much. It’s really insightful. We now drill down into compassionate mind training, what that looks like, why we do it, and how we do it. So I think it’s got something for everybody. I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. And I know you will, too. I look forward to your feedback. Enjoy.
Sarah Rees 02:35
So welcome to Ask the Therapist, thank you so much for agreeing to come on today. I’m really excited to chat to because I think we just meet in passing at conferences, I’ve been to some of your trainings, obviously. And they’ve been always been amazing. So it’s nice to kind of have a good chat with you.
Dr Chris Irons 02:53
Lovely to be here. Thank you for the invite.
Sarah Rees 02:56
Pleasure. So I wanted to start because I know you’re very well known in the world of therapy. But I suppose I’m curious about kind of how it all started. I always think that choosing to be a therapist, as a career is, is a bit odd, you know, as as straight off to go into so I’m just curious about how you made that decision. You know, how it kind of started for you and meeting Paul Gilbert and all that good stuff?
Dr Chris Irons 03:22
Yes, I think it’s great question. It is so interesting, isn’t it just to kind of find out and see how people get into the flow of all of this. I mean, my head, I guess two different versions really are two parts to it. The first part was a kind of getting the CFT like language and social shaping side of things. The vast majority of my family were in the helping professions one way or another. And so I kind of grew up seeing family members who are teachers and firefighters, social workers. And so it was kind of around me that it was important to try to contribute and I don’t know sort of help people in society. My grandfather moved to the UK settled at the end of the Second World War. So he was from Jamaica, and he dedicated his life to basically to helping people in race relations. I got an OBE for his work in helping West Indian and Indian and Pakistani communities in particular, in Nottingham in the East Midlands. So he was just this amazing figure who basically, if I look at it now had compassion at its heart, really, he was focused on people who are suffering a lot and people were experiencing lots of prejudice and he dedicated his life commitment and courage and a lot of wisdom to try and do his best to help him. So you know, I kind of grew up really lucky having these inspirational figures around me and so I guess that was the first nod towards I guess, being a psychologist or therapist and I guess also a nod towards compassion without kind of knowing it at that time, but recognising how so many people were really intent on trying to be helpful for people caring for people alleviating distress. And so when I then went to university, I was taking psychology having to go to university where there was a four year degree. And the third year was on work placement. And so when I was, albeit somewhat disorganised at the time as being a young undergraduate, and having far too much of a big time at university and partying, and so when I finally got around to trying to organise where to go for my placement, I had left the kind of late and there weren’t many options left. And I was really struggling to find something and through serendipity, really a friend of mine, a good friend who lived on the same road of my road as mine, when I grew up, I was around at his house in the summer holidays, sort of saying, I’ve got to get this thing done, and I don’t know where to go. And his dad was back from work. And I happened to be this dad was a GP, and his dad said, you know, would you like me to have a look into it? So I said, Yes. And kind of em forgot about it. And I got this phone call from his dad a week later saying, Look, I’ve never met this guy. But there’s a professor in Darby called Paul Gilbert’s. And I’ve heard fantastic things about him, why don’t you write him a letter and see whether he might be willing to take you for a placement? So I wrote this letter to Paul saying, Can I come along? And so anyway, I went along and had this interview with Paul. And essentially, that’s where it all started, basically, you know, I kind of loved I met him and his wife, Jean, and their research unit there and managed to, you know, find a way through the interview. I remember once he asked me, so you really want to be a clinical psychologist, and I didn’t know what a clinical psychologist was. I mean, I had a few ideas, but I didn’t really know. But it was one of those questions that, you know, you have to say yes. So another way, absolutely. And then that started me meeting Paul, basically, in my pathway into CRT because I had a year long placement with him. And it’s fair to say it was it was transformational. So this was in 1999. So that’s 24 years ago, now,
Sarah Rees 07:04
it would have been right at the kind of the early start of it all was it?
Dr Chris Irons 07:08
Yeah, absolutely. So this was way before I kind of learned any other real models in terms of clinical psychology or therapy, this was the first thing I got. And what was so amazing for me was that I got to see psychology done in an applied way. So I would, you know, be talking to Paul about this research studies that he was looking into shame, attachment theory and self criticism, action, and so on. And then we had the questionnaires, I’d go and interview people with a variety of psychological difficulties. And you know, spend time with them and understand about how they were scoring and how they were feeling. And then we’d come back and enter it into the computer. And then kind of getting statistics out. And data out was that Oh, that makes complete sense to me, because I spoke to this person. And I remember them telling me this about their early life and how they felt shamed. And so suddenly, it was almost like, here’s real world, people, real world ideas, real will theories all coming together. And so I absolutely loved that year, it really helped me to click then in the final year, when I went back to university, everything just made sense. I was really just on it in terms of understanding and loving psychology, and then all offered me to go back to the research units, do a part time PhD with him, but also to be a research psychologist. So when I graduated, so I jumped at his upper and went back. So I had another three years there with him working again on some of the early studies on sort of CFT related ideas. And we published in 2004, great paper on compassion focused imagery. So it was kind of one of the first if not the first, wasn’t really that outcome CFT study, but more just, if we guide people through compassion focused imagery, what happens to them, what their reactions, what images do they bring, and then it was from there that I then went on to train at Shepherd for my, my doctorate in clinical psychology, but I didn’t, that’s all escaped from me. So I went back and had a couple of years on placement. So I now have coordinates that have been being academic Professor version of him. I had him as a clinical psychology supervisor version. So that’s when we were Yeah, he was supervising me doing lots of great CFT stuff. And so yeah, it was just a wonderful experience, really, Sarah and that, that bit I’ve been lucky enough to meet for to see both the academic sciency research version, but also this amazing clinician who was just wow, I mean, my mind was blown really, and that this could be me that I could have a job going forward as a therapist who could do these types of things potentially and be inspired like I had been from all and help people alleviate their distress but also that I could be involved in research and writing and that side of things which I absolutely love to so I do look back and are so so lucky. But he was Yeah, such an inspirational figure, really, in terms of, you know what I’ve got to and this whole compassion focus therapy thing.
Sarah Rees 09:58
What an incredible journey. What was it that you think initially resonated with you with compassion focus therapy?
Dr Chris Irons 10:05
Well, I think one of the bits from as a psychologist, I guess one of the interesting bits was Paul always saying, as you know, you know, we’re interested in the sciences. And so the fact that this was linked to attachment theory, the fact that this evolutionary depending on the fact that Paul had been talking about physiological processes for decades, the fact that there was this wonderful research on shame and self criticism, and so what I loved about this was that, in a way, from my psychology degree, I was able to integrate so much of what I’ve been learning in a kind of abstract theoretical way, and here’s somebody who’s actually doing this live and pulling this together. In this, you know, obviously therapy that will be go on to be called compassion focused therapy. But, you know, it’s wonderful kind of scientifically orientated approach I could really get my head into and then I guess the other bit was having spent lots of time with people, you know, doing some of the research projects and so on, and really just seeing the huge psychological distress and beginning to see how compassion could be this potential antidotes to helping people to meet their distress and to alleviate it. And, and then I think probably the better, which is why I mentioned about the sort of family shaping bit, I kind of found this thing and compassion, and then you know, sort of reading about it and talking to Paul about it. And you know, developing stuff on it. So resonated with me so much, because I could really see my family in in compassion, I could see that, essentially, it was this driving force, even if people hadn’t been labelling it as this that had been guiding so many of my relatives. And then it also had this just larger quality to it, that outside of mental health problems, it kind of felt that if we’ve got a billion people on this planet, at the moment, one of the only things that all of us will share is that we’re all experienced suffering and distress throughout our lives and the fact that compassion is about and for that it’s about them for as you know, that connecting the suffering, alleviating suffering, it was just, you know, really clicked for me that wow, this is working with
Sarah Rees 11:57
A real personal journey, isn’t it? Because I supervise on the diploma. And I think a lot of them kind of become surprised as their eyes open. And they think, Oh, my God, I struggle with shame. I struggle with guilt, and it’s that they go kind of through this journey of applying it to themselves, which I know I certainly did as well.
Dr Chris Irons 12:16
Absolutely. So and I think, you know, that that moment of realising savour the definition of compassionate CFT, sense of sensitivity to suffering themselves and others with his commitment to relieve it, you, you hold that in line. And I think, actually, this is the definition of really what a therapist job is. I mean, the definition of compassion, basically, is what we do, as therapists, we’re trying to engage in clients suffering, we’re trying to find ways to help them to learn how to alleviate it. And the fact that this is actually the definition of compassion, just then married in so nicely to this desire, then to be a psychologist, to be a therapist, and to I guess, to be doing what we’re doing.
Sarah Rees 12:54
And where are you now then in your life? It looks and I’ve heard you move to Portugal. Is that right?
Dr Chris Irons 13:00
Yes. So I guess, maybe an act of compassion for myself and for my family was to take that courageous lead to try something a little bit different and to move out to Portugal. And I’ve absolutely loved it, Sarah, because for me, as much as I loved living in London, and doing a lot of the work there, I did appreciate that London in a way, fed my drive system in a way that I could easily just get caught up in working really, really long hours, and just into that sort of hectic nonstop lifestyle that that London I think propagates. And whilst I loved that when I was younger, getting older and having a young son and all the rest of it, it felt like actually having an external environment that might allow me to slow down a little bit more and have a bit more of a balance between dry system and I guess slowing down and soothing system might be a good thing. So yeah, that was partly what what prompted the the choice to move.
Sarah Rees 13:58
Oh, that’s amazing. What does your working week look like? Now? What what are you doing at the moment?
Dr Chris Irons 14:04
Well, I guess because of COVID. And everyone kind of getting used to online working. In some ways. Things have stayed the same for me as they were in COVID. I guess the thing that I love the most about my job is that it’s so varied. So I still see clients each week. So I still have a decent caseload. I do lots of supervision, I maybe supervise 10 people a week, I do research I do writing, trying to come up with new ideas and ways to get these ideas across to people. We have to run our business balance minds and it’s another business that I’ve set up and were about start launching which is about compassion in organisations. So there’s lots of things that I’m so busy doing and trying to stay out of trouble but also having that nice balance of you know, being able to be out in a beautiful environment and be by the sea and have a nice glass of Portuguese wine now and again, so
Sarah Rees 14:58
That sounds so nice as I sit here =near Manchester. And obviously it’s drizzling. Sunshine… it makes such a difference, the environment doesn’t it?
That sort of thing, of being in nature has become something which I’ve really appreciated being by the sea and by the cliffs, very much helps me to tap into my soothing system into ground and slow down and connect mindfully with what’s going on around me. So yeah,
Sarah Rees 15:24
I’ve just moved about two years ago, now it feels like we’ve just moved, but I’m just only 10 miles away, but more into the countryside. So there’s more walks and local farm shops. And it makes such a difference. I mean, I think, the noise and the traffic before and now it’s like, just,
Dr Chris Irons 15:44
I was lucky enough to see Kerstin McEwan who I knew from way back with Paul, because she took over my job when I went to my clinical training. And there’s still, as you probably know, things are wonderful work on Master Mind Training on forest bathing, these amazing stuff of how to combine these things together. And of course, how much evidence is emerging now linking this in a way to the soothing system, and just how we can actually get sort of imagined versions of this through complex imagery and you know, connected with soothing within breathing, but quite externally being able to connect with nature and sounds and a very grounded way. So I’m really excited about some of the developments in CFT. And how they’re amazing people doing fantastic work in so many different areas. Now, it’s so exciting.
Sarah Rees 16:33
Yeah, it’s a very exciting time, isn’t it? And over the last year, I’ve been supervising on the diploma and I’ve got your book here, which is like, all the students have got it. It’s they absolutely love it. So thank you for this I, I use it an awful lot with the practices. It’s a very practical guide, and you talk a lot about compassionate mind training. Can you tell us a bit more about that? And do you think we can really train our chimp brains that caused so much havoc in our life?
Dr Chris Irons 17:05
Yeah, I think one of the bits that I love about CFT. And of course, you know, both of us are very biassed here. But one of the bits I love is that we’ve got this beautiful, you know, psychotherapeutic process, which, of course includes the therapeutic relationship, as well as in countertransference, psychoeducation. And all sorts of wonderful things that we would do is important, but that of being a therapist, but what I love in CFT is that we do have this sting bit of compassionate mind training that’s, you know, as you know, can be part of that flow of compassion, focus therapy, but also love it that anyone anywhere in the world can engage in compassionate mind training practices and potentially benefit from it. So this has always been something that’s really stood out to me that here we’ve got a set of mind and body trainings that, you know, the evidence keeps on increasing that can be super helpful for people. So I love that bit about CFT. Because for me, then it lends itself both to working in a, I guess, a very, sort of intense psychotherapeutic way in a room with, with one of my clients or in a group. Or of course, it allows me to think about, well, how can we get these ideas and spread them to kids in school, or to just anyone working in organisation, or just any one full stop, who might want to become a bit more aware of their threat system know how they can be in the presence of its know how they can bring a compassionate flavour to things. So I think, for me, this range that CFT has then in its applicability from, in a way, the deep end of psychological pain and distress, you know, some of the worst things that can happen to human beings, all the way to the other end of the dimension where it might be that somebody might not be particularly struggling with psychological distress at all. But they’re just keen to see if they can develop a more caring and empathetic relationship with themselves. And so for me, so that that’s always felt like such a wonderful gift that all the safety community is sort of provided. And so from that side of things, then CMT has always stood out to me. And, and I guess the intriguing thing for me has been, and I guess, whenever I’m teaching, I’m always trying to remind people that of course, none of these things sort of panacea is you know, there are no panaceas in the world, there’s nothing that’s going to be a cure all or anything that’s going to be perfect, but the fact that actually on an individual level, and also collectively, we might be able to engage in some of these practices, which I guess help, fundamentally for us to be as human beings with our tricky brains. The fact that we choose so much of this, the fact that we have this chaotic mind and bodies that through no fault of our own can cause a huge heap of distress for ourself and others. The fact that we’ve kind of got a model that which is steeped in wisdom about what it is to be human that sort of takes into account the fact that actually that much of this stuff you didn’t choose to have the brain thinking like this or feel like this, but actually that there might be a variety of exercises that we can engage in which have a very long history, and back to contemplative traditions and so on, but that we’ve been able to hone and adapt in such a way, I think is fantastic. Because for me, then it gives me personally, but also for the people I tried to support with it. It’s actually well, we have got options here, there are things that we can do not to somehow escape the fact that our minds as you say, a chaotic, but the fact that happens embraces that that gets close to the reality of that that can see into the nature of this. And rather than blaming ourselves sort of step back from shame, but also learn to take responsibility that this is my mind’s like this, well, what can I do? What’s what’s going to be helpful. And so I think there’s something that’s very inspiring about that there’s something which I think because it means then that you’re not trying to do this to somebody else, this is something that we try to embody, you know, I have a tricky brain, just as you were saying earlier that you do and how hard this can be to be human, that resonated powerfully with me, and a recognition that so much of a guess why I’ve also loved CFT is definitely about myself, what I’ve been able to learn about myself have been able to engage my own tricky brain, my own threat system, that difficulties that, you know, that I face, and that I carry as a human being with my shaping history. And the fact that I’ve been able to turn inwards and utilise these kind of practices with the support of others, I think has just been such a powerful thing. And so it gives you them that inspiration to want to provide more opportunities for other people to be able to do that. And that’s partly why they would the workbook or the self compassion app, or some of these other things, it’s been, in a way, how do we get these ideas out of the therapy room, because although I love being a therapist, you know, the reality is that I have a very limited range of how many people I can help, I’m always limited to number of hours in a week, and you know how many plants that can see. Whereas if we can take these ideas, and if I can find a way to spread them as much as possible to as many people as possible, then that’s something which maybe in the last 567 years, I’ve been really motivated about, and really been guiding my, I guess this this portion of my career to see if I can find ways to try to make this more accessible for people.
Sarah Rees 22:11
It feels like this should be a really standard module in school, doesn’t it? If it you know, I don’t know if we’re ever get there. Because our brains are so tricky. They don’t come with an operational manual, do they at all, they’re quite outdated for the world we live in. And you know, when we just have to get on with things,
Dr Chris Irons 22:28
and I love the facts, you know, as you know, her well, people like Mary Welford and, you know, wonderful colleagues might put the map off and others who are just out there doing fantastic work of fashion schools. And and then for me, it’s thinking, well, apparently, we’ve got the scoring system, we’ve got all these you know, we spend, you know, apart from sleeping, we spend more time at work than doing anything else. So if we could find a way to begin to bring these ideas, these practices and the idea of compassion, organisations and leadership into, you know, into people’s lives and different ways they could access it, I think this just suddenly makes you feel like, wow,
Sarah Rees 23:04
workplaces is really changing, isn’t it? I have a lot of clients that are actual business owners as well. And I’ve gone into a number of businesses delivering the three systems model that because it applies individually, but to the organisations as well. And it’s just starting to change the way we talk about our minds. It’s it’s
Dr Chris Irons 23:26
yeah, it’s definitely come at us, as you’re saying, we wait to talk about our minds and body and understand them and D shaming them, then, but then also, they’re sort of set of practices, which are a way to begin to cultivate a compassionate mind. But then the bit similar to you. So what I love is, you know, then working with organisations, it’s thinking about, well, how can we then on a more sort of contextual level begin to try to cultivate something which will support people in doing their day to day jobs, which, of course can be very stressful, and you get a lot of drive system stuff. So how do we cultivate an environment then? So I’ve always loved their guesses another point back to CFT. And why why I loved it will always talk to me, you know, from those 20 odd years ago about biopsychosocial processes. And what really struck me about Paul was that when he talks about biotech of social, he really means it’s like some therapeutic approaches that I’ve come across, which I think are wonderful, so are aware biopsychosocial approach, but then they never really speak about biology. He never really talked about or tried to bring change to social dynamics and so on that actually focused on psychology, which is fine. But I guess what I found important in CFT, was a truly biopsychosocial approach. And as you know, so many research studies have been published on looking at the underlying physiology and biology of what’s going on that can facilitate and inhibits passion and you know, what shame does and self criticism in the body and brain. And but then also, of course, this whole big lean towards how do we bring change to compassionate changes in society? You know, could that be schools, could this be organisations, could this be politics, and so, the fact that actually that’s something which is held with Then the CFT community, me again resonate so strongly, because it really feels like this interaction between the three years. Okay, so, so yeah, I guess another reason why I love this, this work that we get to do.
Sarah Rees 25:09
Yeah. And when you start working with somebody doing the compassionate mind training, what are the benefits you start to notice with people? Well, I guess one of the things that,
Dr Chris Irons 25:20
I guess I will say maybe on the whole for people, but also for myself is one better, I guess, is almost like a becoming more familiar with mind and body, of course, but that process, I guess, of becoming aware of becoming more familiar of the flows of our minds, and the complexity of them, I think is such a beautiful thing. And because in a way, engaging in that, and being able to see and see into a little bit more clearly, rather than necessarily being dissociated, or it kind of being in the periphery of your vision, you kind of know, maybe you’re stuck in the worry loop or self critical knew, but not fully conscious of it. Or, alternatively, you’re so over connected with it, that you can’t see anything else that’s completely occupying your full views. So this ability, I guess, mindful awareness, to be able to sort of step back and to look in and to be able to see from a grounded position and just become more familiar in a less threat based way in a less judgy way that I can just observe. For me that is this beautiful bit because then if I can combine that, and I guess what other people have said, now that actually I can have some stability in looking into my mind and what’s going on, and then I’ve got this psychoeducation, which can begin to help me to understand that it’s not my fault that all of us have these tricky brains that, you know, the stress system, for example, is emerged, and we’ve been bestowed with it. And of course, it’s designed to be helpful, but can be very difficult to regulate all of these wisdoms then can begin to filter through because now I’m becoming more familiar with my mind, I can see that I didn’t choose to have these things, it wasn’t that my choosing, I can see how and why our minds are like they are. So I feel less shamed. I can see my mind’s like your mind, Sarah, that cable, have some differences. But there’s lots of similarities. And then having that next bit to think about, well, in the face of some of this stuff, then what might help me further then to be able to ground to be able to tolerate being in the presence of this. But also, then, of course, to be able to bring from thing, which I think it’s, it’s so powerful, really, which is a caring, supportive internal relationship. And, you know, one of the things that we often share, and I’ve been saying it for years, I guess, as others have, it’s that wonderful moment where you realise that, you know, all the time you spent in relationships over your life, or the hours that you spent with friends and family and colleagues, and they didn’t add up every single hour that you’re in relationship with others, it comes nowhere close to how many hours that were in relationship does and and then you see the irony, which is, first of all, what relationship do we tend to have with others? Do we treat ourselves with the same empathy, kindness and care that we do our best friends and loved ones, which typically is no, but then secondly, this whole thing, just the sheer amount of time we’re in relationship with others, and when have we been taught how to relate to ourselves how to relate to our minds, and it goes back to your wonderful point earlier, gosh, if we could just teach kids this at a younger age, I mean, they get taught amazing things at school, but how can we not teaching them this most important thing, which is the one relationship you really, really going to have to need to be be with and to be skillful and wise to is how you are with you. And so that bit then suddenly, just, many of my clients, I had someone just last week, he was saying, he’s just, it’s mind blowing, really, when you begin to realise that I can have this relationship with myself. And that actually, just as I can be a good friend to others, I can learn how to be like this with myself. And somebody saying to me, this is this is my planner, I’ve never thought about it like this before. So they’re actually things that I can do like going to the gym and building my muscle strength. I can do this in terms of being with me and being with my pain and you know, that kind of moment then of recognition. And the utility then of being able to engage in compassionate mind training to facilitate all of those steps. Of course, not one thing always lands with all people but the fact that that’s something that actually I can take responsibility for. It’s something that I can begin to learn. I think, you know, the types of responses when people really learn with this very, very powerful.
Sarah Rees 29:24
Yeah, absolutely. It takes time doesn’t it? It’s like a muscle building it up. You had like learning to play the piano. But I think, you know, you see people really transform and get so much more psychological ly resilient and, and things just settle for them. And the people listening to this are going to be a mix of people who were interested in psychology, mental health, and then lots of therapists as well but are interested in compassion, focus therapy, if there was a bit of a plan to get started with compassionate mind training, what would what would be step one, two and three,
Dr Chris Irons 29:58
because people are so different people need Different things, I always love that kind of physical health analogies, because I don’t know, whilst for somebody getting physically fit, they would love to go swimming to another person, that would be the worst thing you ever suggest, you know, they can’t swim, they would think they would drown, they would hate it. And wherever the people are running, you know, for many of us, the idea of running is like, could not be a worse way of doing this. So, finding the right version, I think is a really intriguing thing for me, what are the different things that help people to connect with, whether that’s the combination of practices, how they’re approaching them, how long they spend doing them, whether they do it on a cushion, or in a chair, doing a pipe meditation, or whether they’re doing, I guess, that whole idea of sort of mindfulness without meditation or doing practices as they go along in life, so the creativity that can come but but I guess, for me, the, you know, the sort of stepping stones that they were going to be three board stepping stones in really, I guess I would have an often I would subgroup them like this, I guess the want the first thing I guess would be a version of mindfulness and awareness training, to can we help people become attentive and aware of of their minds of themselves and their feelings, their tricky brains. So that’s sort of familiarisation and becoming more attentive and I guess, stable in the sense that there’s some attentional stability that can be practised. I think the next bit then would be how people can cultivate their soothing system. And in particular, I guess that bit about slowing down grounding through soothing rhythm breathing, and just that sense that actually, the breath is such a powerful device for the net, and how we can begin to feel that we can rest in the zooming system and bring it online to help us to, I guess stabilise in the face of a threat system. And I guess, in the face of Dr. system, as well. So that bit like that analogy of a tea tree with deep roots, you know, remain standing resolute through a storm, there’s something about cultivating our soothing system, our capacity to feel safe, to be able to feel content, and so on. And then I guess the third bit for me as a stepping stone, then would be into the more direct cultivation of the compassionate minds, using the compassionate self or the compassionate other as a vehicle to have the wisdom and the strength and the caring commitment to, of course, to learn to have to be with others and to proceed compassion for others. But crucially, of course, to be the vehicle, that part of self through which we can start directly utilising and developing a self compassionate relationship. So broadly, in my mind, those sort of three different areas feel like they’re the sort of, ideally the stepping stones. And I guess for me, then it helps me to sort of think about which stage are we at with somebody? How are they getting on with the first step with mindfulness and stability of attention? And you know, what else might we do before then moving on to the second phase, and it gives me a little bit of a different map a guide to where I’m at and how they’re getting on?
Sarah Rees 32:56
Yeah, and it sounds straightforward, but that is not, it’s not that easy. It takes work. I mean, I think, you know, I say to sometimes I’m thinking better how I kind of talk about it now. But we’ve introduced mindfulness and people can roll their eyes and go, Oh, here we go. But once you understand the science, and I mean, it’s like we all need to be doing the science is phenomenal, isn’t it around it. So it’s understanding it more, but there are blocks that come up. And sometimes it’s, it’s not easy sometimes to do the things that are really good for us, you know, what comes up for people?
Dr Chris Irons 33:32
Well, I think it’s a lovely point you’re making. So I think the science but it’s really useful, sometimes, of course, to have the evidence for why this is important. But there’s also the question of, Why am I doing it in the first place. And so I think other nice things about TFT, for me is that we’ve kind of got direct psychoeducation, which will help with all three of those steps. So did you know, you know, the psychoeducation, about the tricky brain and how easy it is for us to get caught up in these loops in our minds, knowing that and once people have been exposed to that, you know, how do we help you with your tricky brain? How do we help you with the fact that you can get caught up in where we rumination self criticism? Well, there’s a thing called Mind. And my point is ideal, because of course, many of these loops in the mind are about the future or about the past or whatever. Whereas you’re not actually in the here and now. So mindfulness, the reason why we’re going to do this, for me feels like it’s really important. And it’s partly about, well, scientifically, this can be really helpful for you. But it’s linking it to the fact that we will have these tricky brains. So this is a direct link. Now that doesn’t stop them people going on to have difficulties in doing it. But at least there’s a rationale for doing it the same with, I guess, cultivating the soothing system. You know, here’s these three systems. What do you know about each of these? Are they familiar to you? Which do you feel that maybe you’re spending more time in? And how might we go about balancing things? Well, for most of us, of course, we can kind of see if we draw them out that the soothing system is really small, so then I can say to people, so look, what do you think we’re going to help you to do in therapy that or what We’re going to help you to do and people can see well, okay, I need to get the threat system a bit smaller, but I also need to grow the green. So I love this bit in which there are kind of psycho educational pathway into it. But, you know, people will still struggle because as you say, the reality is, I can know something as in, it’s good to go to the gym, I could know, for example, that it’s probably good not to eat too many crisps or chocolate ice creams or whatever, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy, not Hooper’s thing. So, I think coming back to motivation is such an important thing and recognising what gets in the way of any of our sort of healthy motives. So becoming aware of that recognising that it is hard work, but it’s not easy. But it was easy all of us would be doing these things, we wouldn’t have problems with fitness and health and all the rest of it. And we actually have courses or the understanding courses that we can help you to see what’s getting in the way of this. And then of course, we’ve got a little bit of a better chance to see what’s going to be helpful. And so I’ve always really appreciated the sort of fear blocks and resistances to compassion idea, because then, of course, what it’s doing, are they it’s legitimising that, you know, this is a common thing. I always loved that idea. And I often say when I’m teaching and sometimes sharing with people, you know that a phenomena is common in life when a psychologist develops a questionnaire to measure that thing. And so the fact that there’s a questionnaire called compassion scale, kind of gives a bit of a nod towards the fact that this is common, this is difficult for colleagues and working on a fear of mindfulness scale at the moment. You know, again, the fact that people are developing a questionnaire like this shows that there are key things that get in the way for people to be able to do this. And I guess our job is for me, as therapists is, and I support you and working out what is inhibiting your pathway towards doing this. And once I get a bit of a clarity on that, I’ve then got different options to try to help you because there’s a difference between, you know, I as a general Glock, to my motivation to do these practices, maybe I don’t deserve it, maybe I’m not worthy, maybe, you know, those types of things. I’m too busy in life, to actually I want to do these things. And I tried to do these things. But as I begin to do them, it scares me I start to hit upon difficult feelings, thoughts, or experiences flashbacks. So beginning to then guide people to say, okay, given it’s this pattern that’s making this hard, let’s have a think about what’s going to be helpful then. So I’ve always found that process then. And I guess, as you know, as well, you know, for me, particularly when I’m teaching, you know, that whole bit where we can get across to people saying, you know, the fear of compassion, but fears, blocks and resistances compassion, they are the work places like happen, that this is to be expected and in a way not to get worried about it, the fact that actually you kind of know that it’s likely to turn up, it’s more than about how can we understand them? And how can we support you with them rather than our checks? You know, what’s happening? Oh, this is terrible, the person struggling, none of that that’s okay. So all right, it’s a little bit like, going back to the physical health analogies if you haven’t been going to the gym, and you go to the gym for the first time, and you’re on the running machine, or whatever, and you’ve just been doing a minute, and then you start to get out of breath. If you thought, Oh, my God, this is what’s happening to my body, I’m about to have a heart attack, this is terrible. Of course, you’re going to start you’re going to panic, and I think this is terrible of caution are going to continue with, if you have the wisdom to know, to get physically fit, you’re going to get out of breath. That was part of it. That’s okay, it’s needed. It’s required. But how do we help you to do it so that the level of you getting out of breath is appropriate to your level of fitness and so that we can help you to do it in stages? For me that just felt like a beautiful comparison really, to working with fears, blocks and resistances. You know, some people have very powerful ones. Some people have very little when it comes to it, but it we’re aware of them and think about a cane away. There’s exposure, like stuff going on here. How do we reassure you and find that level? That’s roughly within your fitness range that just sort of takes you to the edge without overwhelming you, but also getting your system going a little bit? How can I support you visually to be able to do that,
Sarah Rees 39:06
and allowing it to be clunky and uncomfortable? And an array? Yeah, exactly. What do you do a practice? What are your favourite practices? Or does that look like for you,
Dr Chris Irons 39:17
I tried to go in between doing the more sort of formal practices and then the sort of informal, you know, as I’m doing daily life, and I got to a stage where I actually can’t say I’m perfect at it, but much better these days, it kind of knowing what I might need at different times. So for example, if I’m walking on the coast here at lunchtime, mindfulness of sounds mindfulness of vision, just being in the present moment, you know, is so grounding for me and so powerfully, so if I go for half an hour walk, mindfulness is absolutely my friend. And then what I might do also then walking is also just being very aware of them. posture and see for a portion of that time, and I just embody my compassion itself, can I almost just step into this version, and have this sort of embodied compassionate self practice. So I find things like that really helpful, because I’m going for a walk anyway. And you know, there’s so many wonderful things that can just tune me into skills training at that time. I also know, these days, when I start to get in my threat system and how it shows in my breathing, and how much my breathing is at the top of the chest, it’s quite shallow. So being able to notice that slow down, and just to engage in soothing with and breathing, whether I’m watching the TV, having a conversation with my wife, or just, you know, doing a piece of writing on my computer, I can just slow down my breathing, if I want to, I can have a bit of a visual guide, that just anchors me to make some sounds just to guide me on the piece of breathing. So I find that something super helpful just to ground myself slowing myself down. But when I know that I’m facing something, which is a bit hotter in my threat system, when I know this, almost like scaling wise, I’m kind of more up to the six out of 10, or seven out of 10 or higher. And for me, absolutely, I’m more into doing compassionate self or compassionate other because I kind of know at those moments, I need something which is really going to be able to meet my threat system and be able to ground me and help me to, first of all, tolerate whatever’s going on. But also then give me access to, I guess, wisdom to be able to look into this and to think through from a different mindset, I guess about whatever was triggering it. So I guess over the years, I felt that I’ve kind of got a idiosyncratic pattern of practices that I hadn’t utilised at different stages, depending on what’s happening to me.
Sarah Rees 41:40
That’s fantastic. And you’ve developed now, haven’t you the balance? Is it balanced? Can you tell us a bit about that. And I guess this is a really good tool if people want to get started.
Dr Chris Irons 41:49
Yes. So it was actually there was an app company called psychological technologies. And their idea was to take self help books, and to transform them into apps, which just sounded amazing. And it made so much sense, I just thought it’s one of those ideas that I wish I’d had. And they had got in contact with Elaine Beaumont and myself, because they’d read our compassionate mind workbook. And they absolutely loved it. And they thought this would be a perfect opportunity to translate this into an app. So we started working with them and ended up developing the self compassion app. So essentially, as far as we’re aware, is the first CFT and the first sort of compassion orientated standalone app on the market. And we literally took the compassionate mind workbook. And we took, I don’t know, it’s like 110,000 word words in the workbook, over 28 chapters, and are tasked with the self compassion that was to have 28 sessions, but the max of writing anything for any session had to be 500 words, by ways of just really condensing, you know, I guess, sometimes complex ideas into something which was relatable and engageable. And an easy to access. And, and it was a wonderful challenge. And what we loved about it in a way was that, you know, here’s something which people could, in a brief way, get psychological concepts or ideas, and at the end of each core session, there was going to be a practice. And so we wanted it to be really accessible, but also pragmatic and practical for people in which of the sessions went on, they could build into their compassionate mind, and then, and some of those sessions later on, so sessions 21 onwards in things like working with a self critic and multiple selves, and you know, getting deeper into some of the more tricky practices and engaging a threat system. So it was a wonderful exercise, I’ve been really, really loved doing it. We love the fact that you could read the sessions, or you could just listen to somebody reading out. So you’ve got those gentlemen modalities, and that within the app in one place, you’ve also got a button, you can click the Tools where you’ve got all the major practices that are there. So whenever you want them, you can just click and you know, five seconds later, there you are guided with a practice, we had short versions of the practices, like five minutes, but then longer versions of sort of 10 minutes work there, depending on your time and what’s most helpful for you. And so we’ve been really, I have to say, of all the things that I’ve done in my career, I think, you know, the books and some of the other things, this is the thing that I’m most proud of. And so we’ve been really, really pleased with the feedback. We’ve got therapists, getting clients to use this alongside their therapy sessions. But we’ve just had some wonderful kind of feedback really, from people who have just outside of therapy, they found their way to the app. And it really, really helpful as a way of guessing guide really to coach them into these ideas of CFT, but also cultivating that compassionate self. So, so yeah, we’ve been very excited about the process.
Sarah Rees 44:53
Well add all the links so people can go in, because that sounds like a very valuable tool. And what are you working on at the moment? Amen. What’s Where’s next? You mentioned organisational staff? Are you writing a new book or what what’s happening?
Dr Chris Irons 45:06
I’ve made a promise to my wife after my last book CFT for difficult emotions that I wouldn’t write another one for quite a long time. And so I’m still very happy in this moment of not necessarily writing,
Sarah Rees 45:21
I’m writing a book at the moment, I’m just halfway through. So I’m a bit obsessed about people’s writing routines. It’s intense,
Dr Chris Irons 45:30
it’s very intense. I mean, I love writing the books, but it’s very intense, it takes much, much longer than you ever think it’s gonna take. It’s hard, hard work. But I think there’s something about really going in depth into that, and really focusing on mind on it that I really appreciate it. And I’ve learned a lot show that as you are really learned a lot by spending that time with just dedicating yourself to one thing. But I’m also really appreciative of I’ve not been writing at the moment, and I will come back to it at this future. I’ve got some ideas for books. And we’re at some stage, we’ll need to do the second edition of the compassionate mind workbook to where we’ve kind of got that in our minds. But I think the bit that I’ve been trying to do, particularly over COVID, partly with the app, trying to spread, you know, the idea, so anyone anywhere in the world can just click on the App Store or Google Play and be able to get a copy of the app. But we also developed self compassion course. So during COVID, I got really interested in some of the wonderful work that board and others have done on compassionate mind training, but particularly brief, compassionate mind training. And so I developed an online course it which is four sessions long, and each session is only 30 minutes, we tried to make it really accessible. And essentially, it’s me on film, but of talking people through the system model that basic stuff to do with compassion. And then each session has at least one practice as part of that 30 minutes. And then people get access to audio recordings and some writing on the session they’ve just done. So we’re really excited by that course. Because again, it’s just another way for people to access the ideas, passionate mind training, again, wherever they are in the world that they can sign up and log on. And so we’ve been doing some studies on that. So we had a lovely study with some clinical psychology trainees at UCL, we had some fantastic outcomes from people taking this four week course. But now we’ve got a study going on at the moment of using this four week course with nurses on the frontline in busy hospital. We’ve got it for people struggling with diabetes, we’re going to have another one, hopefully looking for people using it. We’re struggling with OCD. So again, just trying to find different ways of taking the CFT model and spreading it out. So that’s kind of a big focus for me at the moment. It’s a major one, how do we just disseminate these ideas and find different modalities? I guess whether it’s, you know, right, reading a self help book, whether it’s using the app using an online course, just finding ways to do that. So that’s, I guess, one section on one sort of chunk of what I’m doing at the moment. And I guess the other section is yeah, what I mentioned to you is about compassion in organisations. And this came from, gosh, work I was doing maybe 10 years ago or so, where I started to do CFT not CMT stuff partly in within the NHS and organisations but also for certain businesses. And was of course just, you know, as you were talking about earlier, you know how to use a free system model, how to think about reducing unnecessary threat system in organisations, how to help people to sustain drive system, but also, of course, how to create psychological safeness and cultivate the green system. And so I set up I’ve met a wonderful colleague of mine, James Xena, who was a consultant who was already working in businesses and helping CEOs and doing coaching and so on. And she had come to see it and absolutely loved it and felt that this was such a powerful model and really was keen to try and spread this into organisations. So we got talking and started putting some ideas together. So our company is called balo, which stands for balanced organisations as in balance of the three system model. And so we were going to be launching soon, but we’ve been doing a sort of soft launch. So James Dean had been doing some wonderful work within organisations already with CEOs and leaders using compassion focused coaching and using the CFT model. We’ve done some nice workshops for different employees about their compassionate minds and how to cultivate self compassion, but also compassion for each other. And I’m also doing some knife modules at Cambridge University for their business courses. And, you know, so we’ve got some nice stuff that’s already starting. And then hopefully, in due course, we’ll be rolling out a whole range of different things that will be hopeful. So I’m really passionate about this. It feels Yeah, this is just another way of really beginning as you said earlier, to get in there and change these cultures from the is old cultures of organisations in which only about producing more staff and basically employees just have to work harder and just produce this thing
Sarah Rees 50:09
and we’re gonna be working for much longer now, aren’t we, and our work and home lives are kind of overlapping, because we in a different way, we don’t just finish at five, but also the feels like there’s a lot of fear around mental health, like, what is it and just this huge fear and actually, you know, just as we have physical health, we have mental health, and we just need, you know, we need a new way of talking about it, and what an amazing place to start in organisations and things that’s very exciting, as you’re touching on there.
Dr Chris Irons 50:36
So I think it’s such an interesting point, isn’t it that, you know, this idea that we could be in workplaces that are the source of suffering, yeah. And that the given that, you know, workplaces are relational, how we can actually cultivate, you know, caring supportive workplaces in which actually, when you’re there, you know, you feel that you’re cared about and supported, and that, you know, people are bothered about your well being and, and lo and behold, of course, all the studies that are coming out that suggest that if you do feel cared for and supported, and you know that you matter at work, that’s you know, not only do you end up staying there longer, you have less sick days, and you know, you’re more passionate and committed to you know, the company that you’re working for. So, again, just another way of spreading towards a wonderful model and is trying to reach as many people as possible with it.
Sarah Rees 51:24
Alright, exciting. And the question that I asked everybody at the end is, if we could take you back to your 15 year old version of Chris irons, what would you say to him?
Dr Chris Irons 51:37
It’s a wonderful, there’s got to be so many different things that I would say to him. But I guess, if I was thinking of a major one, really, I think, my mom, always my mum say, youth is wasted on the young. And I think there’s something about that, in which of course, when you’re 15 years old, and you’re caught up in the you know, that sort of puberty and you know, shame and, gosh, you know, so many, you know, sort of things about how people view you and so on, I think if I could know, or at least have some more knowledge and what I now know about shame, and what it does to you, and how it can inhibit you as a person in terms of who you are and what you want to do and how you spend your time and how you are with other people. I think if I knew what I knew now, and how compassion can be such a powerful way of shame, resilience in a way of being in the presence of these things, and not further shaming yourself for it, that understanding why it’s normal, it’s okay. But also being able to have I guess, the courage to tolerate it and the wisdom actually to, to know that. While she might tell you certain things true that it doesn’t mean that they are true. And that actually beginning to find, you know, if at that stage, I was able to be more caring and supportive to some of those concerns, I had to find more ways I guess, to either tolerate them, but also to share them with other people. People I knew care for me, but I don’t know if it’s the same for you, Sarah, when shame grips me, and I said Dixie and others, it kind of blocks you to the potential compassion, and in a way other people’s soothing systems. So you end up getting trapped into this sort of internal threat system world. So definitely, if I could go back and be a kind of compassionate coach to that younger version of me. If I could dial down shame a little bit and actually just be able to be in the world a little bit freer from that, I think that would have been a really lovely thing. And it actually would have freed me up in so many different areas of my life. But I guess the main thing really is, is that you can come to that knowledge at some stage. It is a little bit later on in life. But that’s better than nothing. So I’m pleased that I’ve kind of got there or at least getting towards somewhere like that. 40s now, so that’s, yeah, I appreciate that.
Sarah Rees 54:00
Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you so much today, I really thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. I know so many people aren’t going to as well. And I know people are gonna want to find out more about you. And where’s the best place to follow you or find out more about the amazing work you’re doing.
Dr Chris Irons 54:16
So are the major website for us is balanced minds. That’s www.balancedminds.com. So, you’ll see on the website more about me, but also what we’re trying to do there, which is to provide CFT to individuals. So we’re very proud that I think we are the outside of the NHS, the single biggest provider of commercially focused therapy in the world. So we’ve been really proud to get this out there. We have wonderful colleagues doing fantastic CFT work. We’ve also got within that though, you know, sort of providing supervision for other clinicians and sort of a training programme. So that’s the sort of second bits you know how to give people ways into learning about compassionate mind training and the CFT model. And then the third bit that we’ve got there is the self help stuff, the CFT self help so people take a look at that over there, find out more about what we’re trying to do and a little bit more about me and then on social media, probably on Twitter. So I’m @DrChrisIrons on there so wonderful to hear from people. And but no, thank you so much, Sarah. So will pleasure to be here real privilege to be invited on your podcast. It’s fantastic. And I can’t wait to hear about your book are you able to say a little bit about it now?
Sarah Rees 55:28
It is for therapists in private practice. So setting up and building private practice, and building a value based business. So that’s, that’s what I’m doing, um, four chapters in another six to go. And it’s intense and bigger than what Mary wealth was helping me and, and coaching me compassionately, and that she was she kind of was saying to me, this is going to be bigger, you can need more time. I’ll fit it in, I’ll be fine. It’s absolutely on seeming but I really I love the process of writing. But then I read back what I’ve read, and I think, Oh, my God, and then.
Dr Chris Irons 56:09
So I know that feeling. So I had many times when I’ve read about my writing, I think Which idiot wrote this. And it was me. So you can’t really get away from it. But I love the sound of this book. And and certainly I know when we were setting up on its minds, I would have loved to have read a book like that, because it would have been so helpful to have that wisdom and knowledge at the time. So I’ll look forward to getting a copy. And yeah, he’s a great person to have supporting you along the way.
Sarah Rees 56:31
Yes, yeah. She’s putting up with a lot at the moment, as are lots of people around me. And in some being having a break. I do like being a little right in writing whole as well at times. It’s really nice. Thank you so much, Chris. That’s been absolutely brilliant.
Sarah Rees 56:49
Thank you for listening to Ask the Therapist. For more information about the CBT journal, visit my website at www.sarahdrees.co.uk. You can also sign up to download your free guide to building emotional resilience delivered straight to your inbox. You will then also receive regular newsletters where I share my blog posts, podcasts, and tips and strategies for better mental health and psychological resilience. Don’t forget to review and subscribe to the podcast and you can also share episodes on social media using the hashtag #AskTheTherapist. This episode was written and presented by me Sarah Rees, and edited by Big Tent Media and produced by Emily Crosby Media.