What Is... Psychology Series

What Is… Compassion-Focused Therapy

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is compassion-focused therapy.

Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) was developed by Paul Gilbert and draws on compassion to eliminate suffering, including shame and self-criticism.  The theoretical basis spans a number of fields, and incorporates both Western and Eastern philosophies.

Part of what motivated the development of CFT was that some clients doing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) were struggling to believe the alternative/balanced thoughts they were coming up with.  Gilbert believed this was because of high levels of shame and self-criticism.

How the brain functions

There are three evolutionary levels of the brain from a CFT perspective:

  • the primitive reptilian brain: focused on survival
  • the mammalian brain: concerned with social dynamics
  • the human brain: involved in caregiving, attachment, and higher-order thinking.

Problematic thinking loops can develop when human brain functions like rumination get caught up with old brain functions related to motives, emotions, and behaviours.  As a result, what would otherwise be temporary threats get drawn out with self-criticism and imagining the worst possible outcomes.  Mindfulness and compassion can help to disrupt these thinking loops.

CFT also describes three systems in the brain: the threat system, which includes fight or flight responses; the drive system, which is related to motivation and achievement; and the care-giving system, which is responsible for soothing and calm.

The balance between these systems is determined by the environments which we have been exposed to.  A key goal of CFT is to strengthen the care-giving system while toning down the threat system.

Therapeutic interventions

CFT identifies a number of qualities that help in developing inner compassion. These include empathy, forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance, and taking responsibility for self-critical thinking.

Techniques used in CFT include breathing exercises, body scanning, creating a safe space, visualizing colours that represent compassion, compassion meditation directed outward to others, recalling memories of when you experienced compassion, and creating a compassionate ideal.

The Compassionate Mind Foundation has a number of CFT worksheets and handouts available to download related to topics including building a compassionate image, compassionate letter-writing, and self-confidence.  They also have a number of assessment scales you can try, such as the social comparison scale, the defeat scale, and the competitiveness and caring scale.

If you’d like to read more about CFT, there’s a CFT for anger manual with some good info and worksheets.

Had you heard of CFT before?  How compassionate do you think you are towards yourself?

You can find the rest of the What Is series here.


Therapy mini-ebook collection from Mental Health @ Home

9 thoughts on “What Is… Compassion-Focused Therapy”

  1. Very interesting! I went over to their scales, and they have enough to keep me occupied for a long time! I’m excited! I regret that I feel a bit braindead right now (I’m on my period), so I want to come back later and reread this! It’s going over my head due to menstrual fatigue! 😮

  2. Interesting so I gather CFT is like a supplement to CBT, helping you use your mental new tools most effectively? Sounds close to Mindfulness Based CBT but with a few differences.

    I like the way you described it as toning down the threat response while increasing the caregiving response and how you explained the brain functions affecting the (or disaffecting) the CFT process. Well written and informative – I’ll definitely be looking into this more!

  3. Great summary of CFT. I’m currently involved in attending a group which teaches us about the compassionate mind. There are 8 attendees and two therapists and it’s great to come together, learn new techniques and share our difficulties etc. It means that the therapists can work with lots of us at once and we can benefit from sharing our experiences and learning. It also means that the therapists can teach us other bits and pieces about thinking including using I must, I should, I need to etc and negative self talk such as I can’t rather than I find it difficult to etc. I’m trying to share some of my learning on my blog too.

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