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 what 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 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, there’s a CFT for anger manual with some good info and worksheets.
You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.