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.
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.