What is Compassion Focussed Therapy?

Compassion Focussed Therapy or CFT is a system of psychotherapy developed by Professor Paul Gilbert OBE, an internationally recognised researcher, speaker and trainer. In simple terms, CFT aims to promote mental and emotional healing by encouraging people in treatment to be more compassionate towards themselves and others.

But What is Compassion and Why is it So Important?

‘Compassion is one of the most important declarations of strength and courage known to humanity. It is difficult and powerful, infectious and influential. It is a universally recognised motivation with the ability to change the world.’ – The Compassionate Mind Foundation

CFT is shaped by two psychologies. The first is about developing the ability to turn towards difficulty, and the second is about having the motivation, strength and wisdom to alleviate that difficulty.

A common myth about compassion is that it’s as simple as being nice and caring. While these are good qualities, a fully compassionate approach means having strength and wisdom too. Picture yourself when you’re at your very best when you feel strong and in control when you’re motivated to do a good deed or help someone who’s suffering, and you know the right course of action to take. Notice how this feels in your body. This is you at your compassionate best.

Compassion requires you to turn towards difficult experiences, emotions and feelings. This requires the ability to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable you need resilience and strength. Avoiding vulnerability is much easier, but it prevents you from fully engaging in the experience and establishing what the distress or difficulty needs.

Our Emotional Regulation Systems

Professor Gilbert’s evolutionary model proposes that human beings switch between three systems to manage their emotions. Each system is associated with different brain regions and different brain chemistry. These systems originally evolved to facilitate our survival. Early humans needed to avoid and overcome threats, locate resources such as food and enjoy the benefits of being part of a social community.

Threat System – Responsible for threat detection and protection (anxiety, anger, disgust).

Drive System – Motivates us towards resources (wanting, pursuing, achieving, progressing, focused).

Soothing System – Manages distress and promotes bonding (Contented, safe, protected, cared-for, trust).

CFT highlights the association between these systems and human thought and behaviour. The primary aim of CFT is to build a tolerance to and manage distress by bringing them into balance.

CFT also helps us understand that our minds are complex, tricky organs. They’re built for survival, so they’re particularly good at noticing problems and threats. Many of the psychological difficulties we struggle with are not our fault, especially if we’ve been through difficult experiences that have shaped us in some way. These things are beyond our control, but we can learn to support ourselves through the development of self-compassion to improve our wellbeing and build a tolerance to distress.

You can hear Professor Gilbert explain these things in more detail and listen to blogger Chris Winson describe his own experience of CFT in the podcast Let’s Talk About CBT – Compassion Focused Therapy.

Compassionate Mind Training

Compassion motivates people to go out of their way to ease the physical, mental, or emotional pains of others and themselves. However, many of us struggle with the latter, failing to show ourselves the same kindness we readily heap on others.

Self-compassion is vital for your well-being. Being critical triggers your threat system, increasing stress hormones in the body which cause inflammation and impact your physical health.

Fortunately, self-compassion is a skill you can learn and develop. Compassionate mind training (CMT) was developed by Professor Gilbert for people with high shame and self-criticism, whose problems tend to be chronic, and who find self-warmth and self-acceptance difficult and/or frightening.

Professor Gilbert developed this approach when he noticed some people weren’t responding well to cognitive behavioural therapy. He found that while you can help people change their thoughts if these thoughts are experienced in a harsh and critical way they won’t improve emotional wellbeing. In short, our internal worlds need to be supportive and encouraging.

CMT helps people experience and foster compassion for themselves and others. It focuses on developing compassionate motivation, sympathy, sensitivity, and distress tolerance, as well as the qualities of non-judgment and a non-condemning attitude.

Exercises to support CMT might include:

Appreciation exercises that encourage you to savour activities you enjoy.

Mindfulness helps you observe what is happening both within and outside yourself in a non-judgmental and objective way.

Compassion-Focused Imagery Exercises that make use of guided imagery to stimulate your mind and provoke the soothing system.

Compassionate letter writing for enhancing self-compassion.

Who Can Benefit From CFT?

CFT can help people manage distressing thoughts, behaviours and feelings, especially those associated with self-criticism or shame. In my own clinical practice, I regularly witness the benefits people experience when their relationship with themselves softens and becomes more compassionate.

CFT can be particularly helpful for people who find it hard to understand or express compassion. Therapy is a safe space within which to explore the reasons behind this difficulty and start making positive changes.

CFT can also be used to treat anxiety, shame, depression, disordered eating, anger, self-harm and psychosis.

Links Worth Clicking

Podcast interview with Professor Paul Gilbert – Listen Here

Podcast interview with Dr Mary Welford – Listen Here

Building Self Compassion – Podcast Episode – Listen Here

What is Compassion Focused Therapy – Read Here

Chris Winson – Depression, Therapy and Me

The Compassionate Mind Foundation


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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at sarahdrees.co.uk.