Insights into Psychology Series, Therapy

What Is… Compassion-Focused Therapy

Compassion-focused therapy: threat, drive, and caregiving systems

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

CFT looks at three evolutionary levels of the brain:

  • 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, threats that would otherwise be temporary get prolonged with self-criticism and imagining the worst possible outcomes. Mindfulness and compassion are important in disrupting these thinking loops.

CFT also describes three systems within the brain:

  • threat system: includes fight or flight responses
  • drive system: relates to motivation and achievement;
  • care-giving system: responsible for soothing and calm.

The balance between these systems is determined by the environments that we’ve 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.

Therapeutic techniques 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 selection of CFT worksheets and handouts available to download. Topics include building a compassionate image, compassionate letter-writing, and boosting self-confidence. The site has a number of assessment scales, including the social comparison scale, the defeat scale, and the competitiveness and caring scale; these can give you some insight into what’s working and not working for you.

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

If you’d like to read more about CFT, this CFT for anger manual has some good info and worksheets.


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

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

  1. 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!

  2. 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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